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A resident waves from her window at Residence Herron, a senior's long-term care facility, following a number of deaths since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the suburb of Dorval in Montreal, April 13, 2020.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Rona Ambrose is a former leader of the Opposition, as well as minister of health and minister responsible for the Public Health Agency of Canada during the Ebola crisis in 2014

As Canadians continue to adhere to public health guidelines for COVID-19, one aspect of our country’s response to this crisis has been devastatingly inadequate. Across Canada, many intensive care unit spaces sit empty, while residents of long-term care homes are dying in their beds – sometimes abandoned, filthy with excrement and alone.

Our hospitals are ready. Doctors and nurses have been properly trained and are waiting to be called in for COVID-19 duty. Personal protective equipment is available, and, if not, it’s on its way.

Meanwhile, caregivers in many long-term care homes are underpaid, lack training and don’t have PPE. How could this have happened when we knew from day one that long-term care homes would be centres of COVID-19 infection? How could we have failed our care-home residents so badly? There are hundreds of these facilities dealing with outbreaks across Canada.

When Quebec Premier François Legault referred to negligence in describing the devastation at Montreal’s Résidence Herron, where 31 seniors have died, his words should have caused a serious moment of self-reflection for all politicians and government officials across Canada. The potential for devastation in hundreds of long-term care homes across Canada is a national shame.

That seniors are vulnerable to COVID-19 and that long-term care homes are vulnerable to infection is not part of the emerging science of this virus. It is not unique to COVID-19. We have known that seniors in long-term care homes are vulnerable to infection for years. So how can we have failed so miserably to prepare these homes to protect their residents during this pandemic? What has emerged from the horrors of Résidence Herron, Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., and McKenzie Towne Long Term Care Home in Calgary is the stark picture of a lack of protocols, preparedness and resources.

As we think about emerging from this crisis, those who are healthy and immune will be able to re-enter the world. That will never happen for seniors until there is a vaccine. Long-term care homes are the places where people will continue to die if we don’t act quickly. We will all pat ourselves on the back if we “flatten the curve” and see few ICU beds with COVID-19 patients in them. But that will be a hollow victory if hundreds or thousands of seniors die alone in their long-term care beds.

We have the chance to do things better. There is still a patchwork of advice and guidance across Canada for long-term care homes. Some provinces are ahead of others and best practices exist, but we need all jurisdictions to move quickly to catch up. We have the knowledge, funding and equipment to bolster infection control in long-term care homes and we need to support them fully.

Visitors should not be allowed, unless under extreme circumstances. Masks should be worn by staff at all times when working with residents. Staff in care homes need PPE as much as nurses and doctors in hospitals – they, too, are on the front lines with sick and dying patients.

All staff and long-term care-home residents should be tested for COVID-19 – even those without symptoms – in order for isolation protocols to work quickly and more effectively. Care-home staff should be banned from working in more than one facility to limit the exposure of infection between homes. Care-home staff are underpaid and many are casual. We must step up and ensure funding is available to hire more full-time staff if needed.

Care homes need clear guidance and hands-on support from health authorities when an outbreak occurs. They cannot be left to manage on their own. Whether they are privately or publicly funded homes, they must be seen as part of our health care system during this pandemic.

Sadly, we have already lost too many residents in care homes to COVID-19 because of a lack of preparedness and focus. Let’s do better. Leaders cannot assume that long-term care homes have the capacity and ability to manage through this crisis with business-as-usual infection-control protocols. They need more funding, mandatory PPE, clear guidance and moral support. We know where the most vulnerable Canadians live, so let’s step up and make them our priority.

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