Struggling to fill empty shifts for front-line workers, the Rekai Centres’ long-term care staff telephoned 1,000 former health-care interns asking for their help.
Fourteen agreed. Only eight appeared for work. And one didn’t return the following day.
“I think overall people are afraid of being in homes with COVID,” said Rekai Centres CEO Sue Graham-Nutter. “I can understand. It’s not easy.”
At the Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, an executive emailed registered practical nurse Meghann Burley, asking if she would take temporary leave and help her former employer, Bobcaygeon’s Pinecrest Nursing Home, where at least 28 residents have died from COVID.
Burley thought about the request for a day, then said yes. It made sense, logically, she said, because unlike so many other health-care workers, she does not have children or older family members living in her home.
She returned to the home in late March, working afternoon and morning shifts, dressed in goggles, masks, a face shield and gloves.
“I’ve only been there for a week and it is emotionally exhausting,” she said. “I can’t imagine how the girls who have been there since the start are feeling.”
Pinecrest has moved residents with the virus to one part of the building and those residents who so far do not have symptoms to a different section, she said. Some of the residents Burley cared for before she left the home two years ago have died from the virus, she said. But about a dozen seniors with COVID are starting to show signs of improvement, as fevers are lessening and appetites improving.
Still, working in Pinecrest is “traumatizing. It’s not the natural way, to have so many deaths.”
It’s no secret that Ontario doesn’t have enough front-line workers for long-term care homes and their 77,000 mostly elderly and medically compromised residents.
Staffing of front-line nurses and personal-support workers has long been in a crisis state. And now, in a pandemic, many homes are desperate.
Officials at the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario, say workers are struggling to keep up with the care of residents, with the loss of staff who are infected or isolated due to exposure. Some workers are afraid to go into a home where the virus exists, fearing they will infect their children or parents at home, CUPE said.
Doris Grinspun, president and CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said years of systemic underfunding along with a government that spent the last month chasing COVID outbreaks instead of acting swiftly to prevent them, has resulted in too many infections and deaths.
“It is carnage,” Grinspun said on Wednesday, after Toronto Public Health announced that roughly 100 residents at the City of Toronto’s Seven Oaks nursing home are either confirmed or presumed to have COVID. Thirteen staff have tested positive. At least 16 residents of the home have died.
Grinspun’s association is working with Advantage Ontario to match nursing students to homes — as long as the operators provide enough protective gear, Grinspun said. The Rekai Centres said the RNAO emailed 1,400 health-care workers and 15 “agreed to consider” working in a home with COVID.
The call for help from the Rekai Centres began March 23 when academic director Barbara Michalik started emailing requests and, a day later, decided to make personal telephone calls.
Rekai’s two downtown homes, Wellesley Central Place and Sherbourne Place, were struggling. Long-time workers pulled double shifts, put up in nearby hotels so they didn’t have to go home where they might infect their families.
Michalik said some of the workers she connected with during those 1,000 phone calls might have been willing but, at the same time, news broke that Sherbourne Place had an outbreak.
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Amal Tahlil said yes.
Tahlil interned at Rekai homes during her registered practical nurse studies at George Brown College. She is not yet licensed as an RPN but can legally work as personal support staff.
When Michalik reached Tahlil, she told her that residents in both homes had the virus.
“Are you willing to work in a COVID-positive home?” Michalik asked. “Is your family OK with this?”
Michalik said Tahlil asked one question: do you have proper PPE?
“I said, ‘Yes, of course we do.’ And she said, ‘I’m coming in.’”
She arrived the next day. Tahlil is helping residents with their daily needs such as washing, toileting and eating meals. Both homes are in lockdown and residents are isolated in their rooms.
“This is the time when we should agree to help,” she said. “We need all the help we can get. We need hope and empathy.”
Rekai’s CEO, Graham-Nutter, said the staff are “all doing our very best in a very difficult environment in a situation that nobody ever thought would exist.”
“We’re all working together,” she said. “If I call the ministry the (assistant deputy minister) will call me back within 20 minutes. The industry is sharing information, telling each other about suppliers with new shipments of PPE.” Rekai Centres’ lawyer delivered PPE supplies to the home when a supplier was willing to donate the materials, she said.
All staff are in surgical masks all day. The home has “fully stocked pandemic rooms” including N95 masks, she said.
Graham-Nutter has invited all of her staff, including new hires, to visit the “pandemic room,” where PPE supplies are stored.
“They are on the front lines and I want them to know that we are protecting them.”