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'We want to make sure we don’t create any more new admissions [into long-term care], because they’re having difficulties dealing with their current residents,' said Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, seen here at Queen's Park Legislature on April 15, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario has told hospitals to temporarily stop transferring elderly patients into seniors’ facilities, while Quebec made another plea for military assistance, as the two provinces continue to grapple with the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care.

Ontario’s move to halt transfers into long-term care and retirement homes comes as the province’s hospitals added more than 2,500 acute and critical care beds to prepare for further coronavirus outbreaks.

“We want to make sure we don’t create any more new admissions [into long-term care], because they’re having difficulties dealing with their current residents,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott, who said anyone in long-term care who requires a ventilator will still be taken to hospital.

As a further measure to slow the spread of the virus, Ontario also issued an emergency order this week temporarily banning employees from working in more than one long-term care facility.

But the order doesn’t come into effect until next Wednesday and won’t apply to temporary or contract workers, or for those in privately owned retirement homes where residents do not require 24-hour care. It also only lasts until April 28, unless extended by Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet.

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Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said long-term care operators and employees needed extra time to adjust to the new rules. She said temporary staff not covered by the order are necessary in order to provide sufficient staffing during the pandemic. She did not say why retirement homes are not included in the order.

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group that lobbies for public health care, said the measure does not go far enough. It should also apply to all workers in a long-term care home as well as to those in retirement homes, she said.

“You could drive a truck through the regulation because there are so many people excluded,” Ms. Mehra said.

Of the province’s 626 long-term care homes, 104 had declared outbreaks as of Wednesday. Some 933 residents had tested positive for the disease and 530 staff were sickened. Of the 423 deaths in the province, 162 were from long-term care.

On Thursday, Sharleen Stewart, president of Services Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU Healthcare), called on Mr. Ford’s government to take control of two nursing homes by putting them under trusteeship. Ms. Stewart said the homes – Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto and Anson Place Care Centre in Hagersville – have at least 46 deaths between them. “Our members working on the frontline of these facilities have lost all confidence that everything that can be done is being done to keep people safe and protected,” she wrote in a letter to Mr. Ford and Ms. Elliott.

She also said a personal support worker from the Toronto area died on Thursday as a result of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Quebec, which brought in a similar ban on transferring elderly patients last week, issued a third plea to the federal government for military assistance in nursing homes. However, the numbers are unlikely to solve the province’s severe shortage of staff in its 412 nursing homes and 2,200 other seniors’ communities.

While the hospital system prepared for an onslaught of COVID-19 cases, officials did little to prepare chronically understaffed nursing homes and other seniors’ residences, places where 72 per cent of Quebec’s 630 fatal cases resided.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday that fewer military medical personnel are available than he initially anticipated.

“We asked the federal government for army employees qualified in health. It’s not clear how many there are. There are between 60 or 100,” Mr. Legault said. “It’s not the 1,000 people we were talking about.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his weekly call with the premiers on Thursday evening would focus in part on providing additional resources for long-term care.

“One of the things we’ve seen over the past number of weeks is a far more severe impact on seniors’ residences and long-term care centres than we had certainly hoped for or more than we feared,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Ford told reporters he wants the federal government to help boost wages for front-line health workers. “These people are working day in and day out. And they need to have their wages enhanced," he said. Quebec has already increased wages by $4 an hour.

Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, said he agrees with Ontario’s decision on patient transfers.

“Until we get a handle on COVID-19 and its prevalence in long-term care and other settings for seniors, it is appropriate out of an abundance of caution to temporarily halt the [transfer] of patients,” he said.

The “good news,” he added, is that hospital occupancy rates are at a historic low. As of April 13, occupancy averaged 69 per cent, down from 96 per cent before the pandemic took hold. As of Wednesday, 807 patients in Ontario were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 248 in intensive care.

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