The Ontario government says it will probe a “tragic situation” unfolding at a Bobcaygeon, Ont., nursing home where nine residents have died of COVID-19, but won’t commit to further transparency or testing at seniors’ facilities.
Premier Doug Ford offered condolences and his “heart and prayers” to the families who have lost loved ones at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, a cottage-country town about 150 kilometres northeast of Toronto. As of Monday, 24 staff have also tested positive for the virus, with results pending for another 10.
It is difficult to say how many nursing homes across the province are fighting outbreaks of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Unlike some provinces, Ontario does not collect that data and publish it in one place. It leaves local public-health units and long-term-care homes to make that information public.
The Globe and Mail surveyed numerous public-health units in Ontario on Monday and learned of 26 long-term-care homes with at least one case of COVID-19. According to The Globe’s reporting, 17 residents have died of the virus.
As the numbers of cases rise, health-care workers have expressed fear that the pandemic threatens Canada’s older population, with those in nursing homes particularly at risk.
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton, who is also a medical doctor, said the government began to assess the risks of the pandemic to long-term-care homes weeks ago.
“The reality is that this is a virus that is new to the world and it is a threat, and we are doing everything possible to make sure that all measures are taken to address the issue that happened in Bobcaygeon,” she said at Queen’s Park on Monday.
“This is an evolving case ... we will do absolutely everything that we can.”
She said the government will look at “shining a light” on the situation through increased screening and stricter isolation for people being admitted to the home, as well as staff. However, her office later clarified that admissions to Pinecrest have stopped amid the outbreak.
Toronto Public Health says it has six outbreaks in long-term-care homes and one in a retirement home. The hardest hit is Seven Oaks, where two residents have died, 12 are sick and nine staff are affected.
In Durham Region, two residents in their 90s at Hillsdale Terraces in Oshawa have died after testing positive for COVID-19. A resident of the Promenade Seniors’ Suites & Retirement Residence in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans also died. Anson Place Care Centre, a facility in Hagersville southeast of Brantford, has had seven cases – and one death. Public-health officials in Hamilton declared an outbreak at Heritage Green Nursing Home, where one resident has died of COVID-19 and 16 others are sick, including two who also tested positive. In addition, 10 staff members are ill, with one lab-confirmed case. An 88-year-old man at the Markhaven Home for Seniors in Markham also died of COVID-19 on the weekend.
Ms. Fullerton said it is up to David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, to determine whether outbreaks in long-term-care homes will be reported publicly, and if more than three people in a home will be tested for the virus. Only three residents of Pinecrest were tested for COVID-19 because of a provincial policy – usually applied in flu outbreaks – that once the virus at the root of an outbreak has been identified, everyone who is symptomatic is presumed to have it.
COVID-19 testing kits have been in short supply around the world, but Ms. Fullerton said testing at long-term-care facilities will be a priority.
On Monday, Dr. Williams said it is more challenging to test seniors for COVID-19 because of other medical conditions, which means symptoms are not always as overt.
“We’re looking at more and more finer measures to say, ‘can we detect it earlier,’” he said.
He added that the province will soon release new guidelines for long-term-care homes, including increasing training for staff and improved screening.
Mary Carr, the administrator of Pinecrest Nursing Home, said in a statement that workers at the home are doing everything they can to keep “our residents, families and team members safe,” including actively monitoring residents for symptoms of COVID-19 and taking “necessary precautions” if they fall ill. “Our residents and staff have shown incredible resilience during this difficult time,” Ms. Carr said.
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents 22,000 workers in long-term care, said her union is aware of nine homes where at least one member has tested positive for the coronavirus.
All nine are in the Greater Toronto Area, Ms. Stewart said, including the Markhaven Home for Seniors. York Region’s medical officer of health also said that 43 of the home’s workers were ill, and 12 had tested positive. Another 22 of the home’s residents have symptoms of the virus, five of whom had tested positive.
“We’re pounding our heads against a brick wall. It breaks my heart to be in this situation right now,” Ms. Stewart said.
Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario, said workers at some homes have not been outfitted with the masks, gowns and gloves they say they need to stop the coronavirus.
“It’s a wildfire spread without the personal protective equipment,” Ms. Rennick said.
Mr. Ford said on Monday that the government is working to secure more personal protective equipment, but supply will be “seriously challenged” if a massive surge of people enters hospitals over the next two weeks.
Ontario on Monday reported 1,706 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 351 from Sunday. Total deaths in the province rose to 33 people.
Meanwhile, Dr. Williams strongly recommended that people over 70 and those with compromised immune systems self-isolate, leaving their homes for essential reasons only.
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