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Nurses and PSWs at Sienna Senior Living St. George Care Community in Toronto wave from the windows as a support rally takes place in front of the building on Jan. 7.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, and the fact they were first rolled out in Canada to residents of long-term care homes, it can be easy to forget just how horrific the pandemic’s toll was on senior citizens.

During the first wave in March and April of 2020, 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada involved people in nursing homes and seniors’ residences. In the second wave, the percentage barely dropped, to 77 per cent, according to the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) in Toronto.

To date, 15,535 out of 28,428 COVID-19 deaths in Canada – 55 per cent – have involved LTC residents, according to the NIA’s COVID-19 tracker.

So many LTC residents were dying during the first wave that the Canadian Armed Forces sent teams to some of the worst-hit homes in Quebec and Ontario, after overwhelmed employees simply stopped going to work.

In some cases, soldiers discovered abandoned residents lying in soiled diapers, with feces under their fingernails and suffering from dehydration and hunger.

Those ugly details resurfaced this week when the Ontario Ministry of Long Term Care released a report dismissing an allegation made by CAF personnel that 26 LTC residents died of thirst in two Ontario homes.

The report is meant to clear the government’s name. Instead, it inadvertently emphasizes how poorly Ontario has handled the crisis in LTC homes.

The allegation came to light in May in a report by a three-person provincial commission that looked into the disproportionate COVID-19 death rate in Ontario LTC homes. It included a comment by a CAF member, who said “26 residents died due to dehydration prior to the arrival of the CAF team due to the lack of staff to care for them. They died when all they need was ‘water and a wipe down.’”

That sent the Ministry of Long Term Care into a tailspin. The minister at the time, Merrilee Fullerton, said the Armed Forces never informed her about the alleged dehydration deaths, but she promised a thorough investigation.

Boy, did she deliver. In the words of the report released Monday, ministry inspectors “spent more than 3,000 hours over a 70-day period, totalling 1,680 person days examining more than 800 records and interviewing over 90 staff and residents” at the two homes where the deaths were alleged to have occurred.

The report says there is no evidence any resident died of dehydration. The CAF has also now dismissed the allegation, claiming it came from an “emotionally charged witness statement.”

If only Ontario put as much energy into investigating what went wrong in LTC homes during the pandemic as it did into contradicting an allegation that could have been politically damaging for the Ford government.

If only the Ford government put half as much effort into better understanding why it was so unprepared for the first wave of the pandemic, which killed 1,815 LTC residents, or why the second wave killed even more – 2,066, according to the report from the commission that reported the allegation of 26 dehydration deaths.

If only the Ford government thoroughly revisited its decision to weaken oversight of LTC homes – a regime that saw just nine out of 627 nursing homes inspected by the Ministry of Long Term Care in 2019.

If only it invested as much urgency into the question of why the province lacks an adequate supply of public and private LTC beds. In 2018, the provincial waiting list for a bed was 34,862 names long.

Similar questions need to be asked across Canada, but to date only Quebec, where more than 4,000 LTC residents died, has held a public coroner’s inquest. Six other provinces – British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – have decided it’s more important to introduce legislation that grants immunity to nursing home operators from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 than to thoroughly investigate what went wrong.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths in LTC homes are rising across the country, with Alberta leading the charge.

In the first waves of COVID-19, long-term care homes were sites of mass death – even though the threat of a pandemic had been anticipated and understood long before one hit. Yet in too many homes, the worst still happened. We have to understand how and why, so it doesn’t happen again.

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