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Little Mountain Place in Vancouver, on Jan. 3, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Information continues to seep out concerning the horrendous COVID-19 outbreak at a Vancouver long-term care home that has so far taken the lives of 41 seniors – more than a third of the 112 residents living at the facility. In total, 71 staff and 99 residents have been infected with the virus – numbers that just seem incomprehensible.

By any definition the event is a tragedy – by far the deadliest such occurrence in British Columbia during the pandemic. The fact that the public only knows about the situation now – after family members of those who have died have demanded answers – makes it a scandal as well. The province’s Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, has launched an investigation that seems destined to turn up disturbing, head-shaking details about how some of these homes continue to operate.

The matter also represents a grim setback for the provincial government, which received plaudits in the spring for investing $100-million to top up the wages of long-term care staff. In theory, this was supposed to provide employees with enough salary that they would no longer need to work at different facilities to make a sustainable income.

It was thought that aides travelling between different homes were responsible for the outsized case numbers we were seeing in long-term care facilities early on. Those numbers dipped in the summer, but began spiking again in the fall.

However, nothing has come close – in B.C. at least – to the heart-breaking eruption of the virus at Little Mountain Place.

On Nov. 20 of last year, the home sent letters to families of residents notifying them that an employee had tested positive and was in isolation. It was determined that this development posed a “minimal exposure risk” to residents. No outbreak was declared.

Two days later, that changed.

While Ms. Mackenzie’s probe will likely give us a deeper look at what happened, it’s obvious that many people at the home had been exposed to the virus before the one worker tested positive. We also know now that several nursing home aides were showing up at the facility unwell and transmitting the virus to others. They were reluctant to stay home because they didn’t want to leave their fellow workers short-staffed.

Meantime, according to their families, residents were still mingling maskless while the virus raged, undoubtedly helping to transmit the deadly bug.

Now many of these same families are demanding to know: Why weren’t stronger measures put in place early on to stop the march of the virus?

Ms. Mackenzie told The Globe and Mail’s Justine Hunter that her investigation will look at whether personal protective equipment was being worn properly and what contact tracing measures were being employed. She will also be keenly interested in learning what testing protocols were in place, particularly for staff.

The Seniors Advocate has, for some time, led a call for rapid testing at long-term care homes, an appeal that has been rejected by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has taken the position that the rapid tests can often be unreliable. Ms. Mackenzie counters that while that might be the case, some rapid testing is better than none at all.

Rapid testing takes place all around the world; it cannot be completely useless. In this case, it might have helped identify staff who were carrying the virus but were asymptomatic.

One hopes that Ms. Mackenzie will also critique the manner in which the Vancouver Coastal Health authority dealt with the Little Mountain outbreak – namely, failing completely to properly communicate the dimension of the tragedy.

Vancouver Coastal has said case counts and death toll numbers are withheld because it causes unnecessary stress to families and residents. Dr. Henry seemed to justify this position by saying a lack of resources is why health authorities had stopped reporting case counts and other details of outbreaks at long-term care homes.

None of that makes sense. Facilities keep track of case counts and deaths. They have to. That information is passed on to the local health authority, which passes it along to the Ministry of Health. How difficult would it be for this information to be made public when it’s available?

The outbreak at Little Mountain was a tragedy, and surely a senseless one. We must do everything possible to ensure something like this never happens again. Ms. Mackenzie’s inquiry needs to be thorough and unflinching, and all information should be made known.

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