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CHSLD Lafleche, a seniors' long-term residence is seen in Shawinigan, Quebec, April 14, 2020.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Sofie Réunis moved her elderly mother to a long-term care facility two years ago, thinking it would be a safer surrounding. What she found instead was, in her words, “a zoo.”

The situation only worsened when COVID-19 struck last spring. Ms. Réunis’s experience underlines how quickly the novel coronavirus overwhelmed Quebec’s elder care homes, killing more than 4,000 people.

Ms. Réunis testified Tuesday at a coroner’s inquest into the impact of the pandemic on Quebec care homes.

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She described how her 92-year-old mother, Maria Lermytte, screamed and cried at Shawinigan’s Laflèche nursing home.

She had lived with her mother for 11 years. Ms. Lermytte had dementia and a form of Parkinson’s disease that weakened her spine so in June, 2019, Ms. Réunis reluctantly sent her mother to Laflèche. “I convinced myself that she would be safe there.”

Her mother found herself in a ward with blaring televisions, orderlies speaking loudly and shared rooms where the other resident’s bed was just a metre away. “They call it a living environment. It’s more like a zoo,” Ms. Réunis said.

She visited her mother twice a day, but at a meeting with medical staff she was told to show up less often so her mother would adapt better. Her mother was in tears during the meeting. “I’d rarely felt so uneasy,” she recalled.

Orderlies later told her that when she wasn’t around, her mother screamed for help and asked for her. Another resident threatened to kill her mother because of the screaming.

The staff kept changing and didn’t know that Ms. Lermytte had osteoporosis and had to be moved gently. “It was never the same personnel.”

Ms. Lermytte eventually was relocated to a palliative wing, where she had her own room.

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However, when she developed a slight cough, she was given a medicine that gave her diarrhea. Ms. Réunis found her mother badly soiled every time she visited.

Still, when the pandemic started in the spring of 2020, Ms. Réunis thought it would be safer to leave her mother at Laflèche because she worried about community transmission.

Visitors were no longer allowed by March 14 and it became nearly impossible to keep in touch with her mother. No one answered the phones. Ms. Réunis only spoke once with her mother after an employee decided on their own initiative to set up a video-chat session on their phone.

Geneviève Campbell, a nurse in charge of infection prevention and control, testified that the first person to test positive at Laflèche, on March 22, was an employee who worked in the preceding days while symptomatic. At the time, it was normal for staffers with light, cold-like symptoms to keep working.

Ms. Campbell said that staffers were ordered to wear protective equipment and clean their hands regularly but the compliance rate was “around 50 per cent.” Many didn’t wear their masks correctly and touched their faces during their breaks. “They were forgetful, they didn’t think about it, it wasn’t a habit yet.”

Well-meaning local merchants donated treats, she said, and staff snacked on them at the nursing station rather than at the cafeteria where distancing was possible.

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Six employees were the first people to test positive at Laflèche, followed by four residents. Forty-four residents died after 107 were infected.

The staff tried to regroup all the infected residents in a “hot zone” on the fifth floor – but it became too small so they had to relocate the zone to other floors twice.

On April 1, Ms. Réunis was told that her mother had become sick. She was allowed to visit. She found the rooms had been stripped bare, even Ms. Lermytte’s eyeglasses were gone. She saw staff scold professional movers who were helping setting up a “hot zone” but weren’t taking precautions.

She visited again on April 5, but the next morning her mother had died. She later asked for her mother’s COVID-19 test result, but couldn’t get the document from the home so it was hard to find closure, she said.

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