Advocates sound alarms as long-term care homes see COVID-19 cases rise

TORONTO — Advocates worry that long-term care homes devastated by COVID-19 earlier this year could see another deadly wave of cases this fall if authorities don’t clamp down on new outbreaks.

In Ontario, 20 long-term care homes have already reported COVID-19 outbreaks. West End Villa in Ottawa is the hardest hit, with six deaths in the past two weeks and 47 residents and 11 staff members testing positive.

“This is a concerning time for our community and our families and we will continue to keep them informed,” Extendicare, which runs the Ottawa home, told CTV News in a written statement.

In the spring, as the virus spread from one long-term care home to the next, an estimated 82 per cent of deaths in Canada were among residents of long-term care homes.

People older than 80 account for 71 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths, followed by those aged 70 to 79 (18 per cent) and 60 to 69 (seven per cent). Together, those three groups account for more than two-thirds of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

With an anticipated second wave of infections on the horizon, Donna Duncan, chief executive officer at the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, worries that not enough is being done to protect the most vulnerable.

“We’re afraid of reliving the spring,” Duncan told CTV News. “We can’t repeat that, we have to make sure that what happened in the spring never happens again.”

Amani Oakley, a Toronto-based lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice, said Ontario’s current outbreaks are perplexing after the province underwent intense scrutiny over how it handled COVID-19 just a few months ago.

“You would have thought there would have been a learning curve, and they would have figured out, you know, how to do things right, especially the severity that hit the first time. It is a little difficult to understand how if they’ve got all the systems in place and everyone’s following the rules that they’d have a second outbreak like this,” Oakley said.

The upcoming flu season could make matters even worse, with doctors warning of a possible “twindemic.” Oakley said she’s concerned of a “really big hit” to seniors who are already medically compromised.

“We’re just not getting it right with the nursing homes and it’s not right. This is a population we have a high obligation to protect,” she said.

Many facilities continue to struggle with ongoing staff shortages. Recruitment campaigns in Quebec and British Columbia have been established in hopes of hiring more support workers.

Duncan said current levels of understaffing are unacceptable and that reinforcements must be brought in “as quickly as possible” to fill a need.

“We can’t throw up our arms and say, ‘Oh my goodness this is too complicated.’ It is going to require that others help us do this. Long-term care homes cannot do it alone. We need to work with our community college and educational partners to make this work,” she said.

Experts agree that it will be impossible to prevent all outbreaks, but it will be important to watch how quickly these spikes in cases can be kept under control.

Dr. Nathan Stall, a medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said the current outbreaks are a reminder of just how quickly COVID-19 can spread, particularly among vulnerable seniors.

“Long-term care actually isn’t getting the spotlight I would argue it deserves. We have 20 homes under active outbreaks in the province, and these things spread like wildfire as we do see,” he said.

On Wednesday, Canada added another 944 cases of COVID-19, the highest number of new cases since late May. Ontario led the country with most new cases, at 315, followed by 303 in Quebec and 122 in British Columbia.

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