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People had been asking about it. But the full reality really dawned on the country this past week, amid reports on the horrific case of Montreal’s Residence Herron – a funeral home employee seen here outside the long-term care facility on April 13, 2020.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

As Canadians watched the numbers about the new coronavirus escalate – the cases, and deaths, and patients in intensive-care beds – we didn’t see the current epicentre of the problem clearly.

Collectively, we failed to understand the fatal spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities for seniors.

People had been asking about it. But the full reality really dawned on the country this past week, amid reports on the horrific case of Montreal’s Residence Herron, and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam’s Monday statement that nearly half of the deaths from COVID-19 were linked to such facilities. Half.

Again, people had been asking. By the time Dr. Tam said it, reporters had cobbled together numbers from various places that hinted at the proportions. But it was hard to get a clear picture.

In late March, The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Grant called all 34 local public health units in Ontario and found there were outbreaks at 16 long-term centres; the province couldn’t tell her how many were affected.

Reporters at The Globe, the CBC, The Toronto Star and other news organizations still make such calls to get more up-to-date figures than those now published by the province. In Quebec, when La Presse reporters wanted a list of long-term care centres with outbreaks, the health department told them to call all 22 regional health authorities, the paper reported.

Meanwhile, a lot of attention focused elsewhere: The rising number of cases and deaths and patients in ICU beds. Would hospitals be okay?

Already, part of the health care system, the one housing the most vulnerable, older patients, was not.

On Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the province would bar staff from working at more than one long-term care facility. It should have been done sooner.

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By then, official statistics reported 93 outbreaks at such centres. In reality it was higher.

For weeks, ordinary folks have been staying home. But personal support workers in Ontario were working a shift in one long-term care facility, getting residents out of bed or into a bath, then doing a shift at another one the next day. COVID-19 outbreaks infected not just residents but staff, who might bring it to another centre before showing symptoms.

Ontario officials worried that restricting staff to one workplace would leave shortages. But reorganizing workers to full-time needed to be done fast.

Hindsight is 20/20. Many things would have been done sooner if we had seen what was coming.

In this case, it was hard to see what was already here.

Public health workers are busy with things other than stats. But it is disconcerting if governments do not have up-to-date data.

A body on a guerney is taken out of the Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto on April 14, 2020. The long-term care home has seen over twenty deaths amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In Ontario, each of the 34 public health units enters data into the Public Health Information System (iPHIS), and the province takes it at 4 p.m. to post on a website the next day. It appears to lag badly. On Monday, The Globe’s Jill Mahoney contacted 34 PHUs – not all answered – and was told of 182 deaths at long-term care facilities. On Tuesday, Ontario Chief Medical Officer David Williams cited a much lower figure: 136.

It was certainly hard for the public to get a clear picture.

After La Presse asked for a list of long-term facilities with cases, and was told it was confidential but they could try calling all 22 regional health authorities in Quebec, columnist Patrick Lagacé referred to it as an – well, to be polite, let’s call it a bureaucratic insult to Quebeckers.

His point was that families have a right to know how their relatives might be affected. The public too. His larger point, in that column published Tuesday, was that it was past due for Quebec to have shifted resources – maybe even the military – to long-term care facilities. On Wednesday, Quebec Premier FrancCois Legault asked for help from the army.

Perhaps public information might not have changed outcomes. It’s still a key part of we-are-all-in-this together transparency.

Toronto’s public health unit, to its credit, has just this week started to reveal which long-term care centres have experienced deaths. Some units, such as the one in Windsor-Essex, still argue that doing so would infringe someone’s privacy.

It won’t. It informs. Sometimes it will worry, sometimes reassure. It counters rumour and misinformation. Information dispels false suspicions. And it can help us – the public, that is in this, too – get a clearer picture of what we’re all up against.

Now that it is recommended you wear a face covering in dense public settings like grocery stores and pharmacies, watch how to make the three masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Written instructions available at tgam.ca/masks

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