© Veronica HenriA woman visits her 86-year-old mother through a window at the Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering on Wednesday April 22, 2020. The Pickering home was one of the homes included in a shocking report by the Canadian military, released Tuesday by the province, regarding the status of five homes in Ontario.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford vowed to do everything in his power to fix long-term care Tuesday after releasing a report from the Canadian Armed Forces that detailed poor infection control, lack of adequate nutrition and allegations of abuse and neglect inside five Ontario homes where soldiers were brought in to help during the pandemic.
But the horrifying details in the military report came as no surprise to close observers and critics of Ontario’s long-term care system, who have long charged that the province’s nursing homes have been neglected for years, leaving families stunned as they’ve watched loved ones face pain, fear and inadequate care.
However, during a news conference, Ford said, “COVID-19 has exposed deep cracks in the long-term care system and it is now up to us to fix these problems.”
He said, “This tragedy must serve as a wake-up call to our whole country.”
Ford said Ontario has launched an investigation into the allegations compiled by members of the military who were called in to help during the pandemic.
Among other things, the report described one resident who choked to death after being fed while lying down; residents receiving inadequate nutrition; cockroaches, flies and rotten food in homes; residents with pressure ulcers and numerous reports of residents sitting in unchanged, soiled diapers or calling out for help with no response.
The report also detailed the repeated use of equipment between residents without proper cleaning and a “culture of fear” among staff at one home about using supplies because they cost money, something the military says could have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
Ford said he wanted members of the public to see the report. “You deserve to know what I know as premier.”
The province has asked the military to remain in the five long-term care homes, which are all in the Greater Toronto Area, for an additional 30 days. It has also forwarded the report on one death to the provincial coroner. And Ford said he has spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and asked for federal assistance to fix problems in long-term care.
During an emotional news conference, Ford described reading the report from the 4th Canadian Division Joint Task Force as the hardest thing he’s done as premier, adding: “Until yesterday morning, we didn’t know the full extent of what these homes, what these residents, were dealing with.”
But those who work inside homes and with families say they have been warning of those same issues for years with little effect.
“These are the kinds of complaints we hear all the time,” said Jane Meadus, lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly. “It took somebody from the outside to show what was going on.”
Meadus said seeing the litany of serious issues in a single report gives it more impact and the loss of family care during the pandemic has likely made many chronic problems worse, but similar issues can be found in the government’s own inspection reporting system.
“There wasn’t anything in the report that particularly surprised me. We hear it on a daily basis.” But the province’s system of inspecting and holding homes to account is not effective, she said, staffing levels continue to be inadequate, and there is no minimum standard of care for residents which means staff are forced to rush through daily care.
Candace Rennick, secretary treasurer of CUPE Ontario and a former personal support worker, said front-line workers have also been raising similar issues for years and getting ignored.
“Nothing in that report is going to be any surprise for those of us working on the front lines,” she said. “(I guess) it takes the military to get some action. It would be nice for front-line voices to get heard as well.”
The Ontario government has announced it will call an independent investigation into the province’s long-term care system in September. Critics want an independent inquiry. On Tuesday, Ford said he is not ruling anything out.
The five homes that were the focus of the military report are among the worst hit by COVID-19 in the province. Ford said he knows they are not the only homes with problems.
They include Orchard Villa in Pickering, which has had 77 deaths from COVID-19 as of the beginning of the week, Altamount Care Community in Scarborough with 52 deaths, Eatonville in Etobicoke with 42 deaths, Hawthorne Place in North York with 43 deaths and Holland Christian Homes Grace Manor in Brampton with 11 deaths.
Other homes in the province have also had dozens of deaths, including Carlingview Manor in Ottawa where 52 residents have died and Madonna Care Community, where 42 people have died — more than one-quarter of all residents in the 160-bed home.
Ottawa Liberal MPPs Stephen Blais and John Fraser have repeatedly asked the province to take over management of Madonna Care Community, which is now part of a proposed class action lawsuit against its operator Sienna Senior Living.
Minister of Long-term Care Merrilee Fullerton called the military report “gut wrenching and appalling” and said the ministry is taking immediate steps to address the findings by launching investigations and asking the coroner to look into the reported death.
The pandemic has hit residents of Ontario’s long-term care homes disproportionately hard. More than three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario have been among long-term care residents. Two personal support workers from Ottawa long-term care homes have died from COVID-19. One hundred and fifty of the province’s 623 long-term care homes are currently experiencing outbreaks.
Ford rejected a question about whether his government should have acted sooner to protect long-term care residents before the pandemic put them at extreme risk.
“I don’t feel our government failed seniors. As a matter of fact we saved a lot of lives by doing what we did. The system was broken.”