Cockroaches, rotten food, patients with ulcers left bed-bound, staff moving from unit to unit wearing contaminated gear.
Those are just some of the disturbing details in a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) whistleblower report made public Tuesday, based on the observations of its members at five Ontario long-term care homes.
Ontario officials were notified of the report by the federal government Sunday in a memo to the solicitor general grouping the concerns into either non-adherence or non-existence of policies, inadequate resources including trained staff and medical supplies, deficiencies in care home infrastructure and concerns about standards of care.
“It’s heartbreaking, horrific, it’s shocking that this can happen here in Canada. It’s gut-wrenching and reading those reports is the hardest thing I’ve done as premier,” Ford said at a news conference Thursday.
“There’s going to be justice. There’s going to be accountability,” a visibly emotional Ford told the families of loved ones in care homes.
Speaking to reporters, Ford thanked CAF members for bringing their concerns to light, calling on them to extend their mission for an additional 30 days. The premier also said he will be looking into the possibility of criminal charges.
Ford stops short of calling public inquiry
“This tragedy must serve as a wake-up call to our entire country… COVID-19 has exposed the deep, deep cracks in the long-term care system,” Ford said, calling on the federal government for additional support.
The report, dated May 20, states that its purpose is “to ensure that these observations do not go unnoticed by our chain of command, the Province of Ontario and most importantly at the individual [facilities] where efforts are currently underway…”
At Hawthorn Place long-term care home in North York in particular, CAF members said they observed a “100 per cent contamination for equipment, patients and overall facility.
“Nurses/PSW’s are often observed not changing PPE for several hours while moving between numerous patient rooms. Equipment is seldom/ever observed to be disinfected but is used between [positive and negative] patients. [Medical] cart, [blood pressure] cuffs, thermometers etc. not disinfected between uses.”
The province said in a news release it has begun an active investigation based on the CAF report.
Merilee Fullerton confirmed one death has been referred to Ontario’s coroner for investigation. Fullerton also said in the last 24 since the province became aware of the report, there have been “significant improvements.”
“In addition to continued regular inspections, the Ministry of Long-Term Care Inspections Branch will immediately investigate specific critical incidents referred to in the report,” the news release said.
Ford also reiterated Tuesday “the buck stops” with him, though again stopped short of committing to a public inquiry despite the concerns raised in the report. Ontario has instead launched an independent commission to look into the system.
Ford also offered a scathing view on the province’s inspection system when asked why it took the military going into these five homes for problems to be revealed.
“Yes inspections happen and these folks come in there but it took the military to be there 24/7,” the premier said, adding it’s impossible to know the extent of the problems plaguing the system “until you live, breathe, eat it … until you’re there around the clock at night time and during the day.”
The premier added he only saw the extent of the strain on palliative care when his own brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, fell out of his bed while in care.
Prime Minister calls report ‘deeply disturbing’
Ford also didn’t commit to the province taking control of long-term care homes in Ontario.
Asked outright if he failed seniors in Ontario, Ford replied no, saying that while he takes ownership of the crisis, his government inherited a broken system.
Speaking about the report Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called allegations “deeply disturbing.”
“We must, as a country, improve the situation in those care homes,” Trudeau said.
“We are facing a situation that has clearly existed long before the pandemic in a number of long-term care homes. The support given to our seniors is not up to scratch,” Trudeau added.
Nearly 77 per cent of total COVID-19-linked deaths in the province were residents in long-term care homes, according to the Ministry of Health.
CAF members are currently deployed to the following long-term care homes in Ontario:
- Orchard Villa in Pickering: 77 deaths (as of Monday).
- Altamont Care Community in Scarborough: 52 deaths (as of Monday).
- Eatonville in Etobicoke: 42 deaths (as of May 23).
- Hawthorne Place in North York: 43 deaths (as of May 23).
- Holland Christian Homes Grace Manor in Brampton: 11 deaths (as of Monday).
287 new COVID-19 cases reported today
The news comes as Ontario reported 287 additional cases of COVID-19 this morning, a welcome drop after five straight days of new daily cases over 400.
The 1.1 per cent increase in total cases marks a departure from figures seen over the last two weeks, when growth rates have generally hovered between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent.
The relatively low number of new cases confirmed today, however, comes as testing levels in the province remain well below the benchmark of 16,000 per day.
Ontario’s network of labs processed just 9,875 tests since its last update, less than half of its 20,000 daily processing capacity. The backlog of tests waiting to be processed sits at 6,961.
The new instances — the fewest reported on a single day since March 31 — bring the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province since the outbreak in late January to 26,191. Of those, 76.2 per cent, or 19,958, are resolved.
The cumulative count also includes 4,485 confirmed cases among health-care workers.
The Greater Toronto Area continues to account for the majority of cases, slightly more than 65 per cent. During his daily briefing Monday, Premier Doug Ford suggested that certain areas of Brampton, north Etobicoke and Scarborough are currently “hot spots” for the novel coronavirus, though he didn’t get any more specific.
During question period Tuesday morning, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should make that information available to the public immediately.
“Can the premier explain how families are supposed to know whether they’re actually in any of these hot spots if the government refuses to share that information?” she said, referencing a CBC News story about the issue.
In response, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is waiting to outline its full testing strategy, rather than revealing information in “bits and pieces.”
The ministry says it has data on case numbers narrowed down to particular area codes, but has so far declined to release that information publicly.
Ontario’s official death toll grew by 21 and now stands at 2,123. Data compiled directly from regional public health units, however, puts the current toll at at least 2,194 as of Monday evening.
14 CAF members contract COVID-19 in Ontario
Meanwhile, the Canadian Forces said today that some 36 members working in long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec have now become sick with COVID-19.
That’s up from 28 cases of the novel coronavirus among those troops less than a week ago.
The military has been deployed to nursing homes in the two provinces to reinforce workers overwhelmed by the illness, unable to keep up with residents’ needs because of all the protective measures they need to take, or off work because they’re ill themselves.
Much of their work includes tasks such as food service and moving and maintaining equipment, with some medical staff also serving in the homes.
Fourteen of the military members with COVID-19 are in Ontario and 22 of them are in Quebec.