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A body is removed from Orchard Villa Care home in Pickering, Ont., on April 26, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is taking control of five long-term care homes, including four that the Canadian military says neglected and abused residents, while the Auditor-General launches a review into the province’s handling of the pandemic.

The government is facing mounting criticism for failing to discover deplorable conditions in seniors’ residences before the military stepped in. Premier Doug Ford announced on Wednesday that in addition to taking over the homes, his government is ramping up inspections and fast-tracking an independent commission to probe the sector.

“We need boots on the ground,” Mr. Ford said. “I want eyes and ears in the homes that we’re most worried about.”

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A Canadian Armed Forces report released on Tuesday details horrific conditions in five of Ontario’s long-term care homes – including residents left in soiled diapers and crying out for help for hours.

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The Ontario government is appointing temporary management at five private, for-profit homes where a total of 263 residents have died: Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke, Hawthorne Place Care Centre in North York, Altamont Care Community in Scarborough and Orchard Villa in Pickering, all named in the military report, as well as Camilla Care Community in Mississauga. The government is not taking over a fifth home cited in the report, Holland Christian, because the situation has stabilized.

A second report released on Wednesday contains the Armed Forces’ findings in Quebec homes. While devoid of the appalling examples in the first report, the military portrays a dysfunctional elder-care system in Quebec that buckled under when the pandemic struck.

Ontario is taking over management of four of the five long-term care homes that were the subject of a Canadian Armed Forces report the premier called 'horrific.' The Canadian Press

The report describes orderlies in Quebec seniors’ homes disappearing during their shifts, boxes of surgical masks and narcotics that went missing, long-time employees quarrelling with newcomers and repeatedly ignoring safety instructions.

The coronavirus has killed 1,587 residents of long-term care homes in Ontario and 2,700 in Quebec, the two hardest-hit provinces. The virus has also caused thousands of workers sickened with the virus in these chronically understaffed homes to miss work, forcing the premiers of both provinces to ask for assistance from the Forces.

Mr. Ford said on Wednesday the military has agreed to stay on until at least June 12. Quebec Premier François Legault has requested that the army assistance be extended until Sept. 15.

Ontario will also expedite to July a previously announced independent commission to examine the pandemic’s impact on long-term care homes, which was set to start in September. Mr. Ford said the commission will include public hearings, witnesses and public reports. It will also have authority to investigate his office and he is willing to testify.

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“We want this to happen," he said, “100 per cent I’ll be a witness.”

The Premier also promised “expanded and rigorous” inspections of the five homes named in the military’s report, as well as a sixth home the province is taking over in Mississauga, west of Toronto. He said inspectors will monitor the facilities for two weeks, with at least one inspector remaining in the home for the entire time.

The plans to beef up scrutiny of the worst-hit homes raised questions as to why government inspectors did not flag problems earlier.

Jane Meadus, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said the announcement is “too little, too late.”

“This is something they should have been absolutely on top of and now they’re having to scramble,” she said.

Ms. Meadus noted that in late March, the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care said it was “redeploying” inspectors to support nursing homes as they dealt with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. She called on the government to reinstate comprehensive annual inspections of long-term care facilities, noting that only nine of the province’s 626 homes received in-depth inspections known as resident quality inspections last year.

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Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said her ministry inspectors have been “in contact” with struggling homes to provide support during the pandemic but she did not answer a question asking when the five homes in the military report were last inspected by the government. She said the province’s inspections system is rigorous and is not to blame for poor conditions in nursing homes, noting that the previous Liberal government decreased the number of resident quality inspections after a report by the Auditor-General.

“What we do know is that the homes that get in COVID-positive situations can spiral out of control very quickly,” she said.

Mr. Ford added that COVID-19 has “changed the game.” The newly announced inspections will be “a lot more rigorous than in the past,” he said.

Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk said in an interview on Wednesday that her office is taking a broader look at how prepared Ontario was to handle the coronavirus, and launched a special audit this month into, “the whole pandemic preparedness and management” in the health-care sector.

“The inspection role is key here, listening to residents, listening to families, going in checking,” Ms. Lysyk said. “We had some concerns on the way they did that.”

In her 2015 annual report, Ms. Lysyk found that while the government conducted comprehensive inspections of all long-term care homes that year, inspectors had fallen behind on responding to critical incidents, such as abuse or neglect, as well as to complaints.

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Eatonville and Hawthorne are among 11 long-term care homes owned by Rykka Care Centres.

“We have worked tirelessly to ensure the homes that we manage have the resources and the tools they need to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the seniors who call our community their home,” said Linda Calabrese, a vice-president at Responsive Management Inc., Rykka’s operating partner. “Most of the homes that we manage have been successful at keeping COVID-19 at bay.”

Altamont and Camilla are both owned by Sienna Senior Living Inc. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Orchard Villa, which is owned by Southbridge Care Homes, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Armed Force’s 60-page report on Quebec summarizes the observations of more than 1,000 military personnel deployed at 25 seniors’ homes.

At Montreal’s Grace Dart Extended Care Centre, where 61 patients have died, some employees arrived late or would go missing during work for 30 minutes to two hours, the document said.

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At Vigi Mont-Royal, a private Montreal facility where 70 residents died, the home had trouble controlling the distribution of personal protective equipment and medications. For example, a shipment of 20 boxes of surgical masks and one of narcotics disappeared.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will speak with the premiers on Thursday about how to address concerns in long-term care facilities.

He said he would not “short circuit” that conversation by putting forward proposals for reforms.

“Of course, there will be many important discussions going forward on how we establish a better system in Canada,” Mr. Trudeau said.

With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

The failings in Ontario and Quebec nursing homes found by the military members assisting in the COVID-19 pandemic need addressing but the federal government has to be cautious before stomping into an area of provincial responsibility, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday. That's passing the buck, retorted NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who wants for-profit operators taken out of the system. The Canadian Press

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