The number of active cases of COVID-19 among residents of Ontario long-term-care homes is growing at an average rate of about eight per cent per day, prompting seniors advocates to call for measures to prevent a full-blown second wave of infections from sweeping through facilities.
There were 216 active resident infections in the province’s long-term-care homes as of Oct. 20, up from just under five on Sept. 1. That represents an average daily growth rate of 7.99 per cent between those dates. (Since the official provincial numbers for Sept. 5 indicate less than five infections, we have assumed five for ease of calculation.)
At the same time, the number of homes with active outbreaks currently sits at 86, up from 13 on Sept. 1, with a high of 87 homes reached on Oct. 19. Sixty residents have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of September.
“It shouldn’t be about the numbers. It’s the fact that this is happening again and we’re on the trajectory headed towards a déjà vu of what happened in the first wave,” said Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University and a family caregiver advocate. “Not enough was learned and the kinds of policies and supports we needed didn’t happen. This is preventable.”
Stamatopoulos stressed that good training, better working conditions and decent salaries are needed to make personal support work in long-term-care homes more attractive.
Earlier this month, the provincial government announced a $ 461-million plan to improve recruitment of PSWs and others who do similar work in health care by increasing wages ($ 2 increases for those working in public hospitals and $ 3 for home and community-care workers). It’s a measure Stamatopoulos called “a very big Band-aid for the gunshot wound that is long-term care.”
“It doesn’t attract more workers,” she said. “Sure, they get a little bit of a bump, but their working conditions remain the same.”
Those working conditions include long hours, high stress, and a constant fear of making mistakes, in addition to “desperately inadequate” staffing, said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, a non-profit network of public-health-care advocates.
“They’re rushed all the time, the stress never stops,” she said, adding that one PSW might be responsible for looking after anywhere between eight and 30 residents, depending on staffing levels. “It’s terrifying. They go home and think, ‘oh my God, did I put up the guardrail on that bed? Did I chart this?’”
There is also the fear that they too could be infected with COVID-19 if there are cases in the home. “They are at risk themselves,” Mehra said of PSWs.
In fact, there are more active cases of COVID-19 among long-term-care staff than among residents. As of Oct. 20, there were 260 active staff cases, up from 23 on Sept. 1.
Vermont Square, a Toronto long-term-care home, has had 44 confirmed cases among residents and 33 among staff, which constitutes the worst outbreak in recent weeks. It is followed by Simcoe Manor Home for the Aged in Beeton, which has had 34 resident cases and 23 staff cases, and Residence Prescott et Russell in Hawkesbury, with 24 cases among residents and 16 cases in staff.
Mehra says while the escalating numbers are disturbing, the homes that have been able to get outbreaks under control are those where management has been taken over by rapid-response teams from hospitals. She says a coherent provincial plan is needed to address all homes experiencing outbreaks so that teams can be sent in immediately as soon as one or two cases are detected.
“If a plane crashes, everything stops and emergency departments take (the victims). This is the same thing. The plane is crashing. Regardless of what hospital capacity is, teams need to be deployed,” she said.
Patricia Spindel, co-founder of Seniors For Social Action Ontario, a group of social activists from across Ontario, said the fact that the Red Cross is going into Ontario nursing homes “should tell us all we need to know about the fact that these institutions are disaster areas.”
A week and a half ago, the federal government gave the go-ahead to the Red Cross to go into seven Ottawa-area long-term-care homes dealing with serious outbreaks.
“It’s time to downsize and ultimately eliminate (long-term-care homes) in favour of small community group homes and in-home attendant care and paid caregiver programs,” Spindel said. “Nursing homes are unsustainable. Period. Taxpayers and the public sector — hospitals, health units, the military, and now even the Red Cross are having to bail them out.”
With files from Ed Tubb and Andrew Bailey