‘Pre-pandemic mode’: How Canadian long-term care homes are preparing for coronavirus

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How Canadian long-term care homes are preparing for COVID-19
WATCH: How Canadian long-term care homes are preparing for COVID-19 – Mar 4, 2020

In the wake of several coronavirus deaths at a seniors home near Seattle, Wash., long-term care facilities across Canada are redoubling efforts to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak and protect vulnerable residents.

Revera, a chain of long-term care homes, said its facilities are making sure they have enough medical supplies, food and staffing should the outbreak hit any of its 76 locations across the country.

“We’re moving into a pre-pandemic planning mode so that we can ensure that we have all the things that we need,” said Dr. Rhonda Collins, chief medical officer at Revera. “We are always in a state of preparedness as this is outbreak season. Influenza is always a big deal this time of year.”

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Collins said long-term care homes have created additional screenings at entrances to ask visitors if they’re experiencing symptoms — like shortness of breath or fever — and if they have travelled to any countries currently experiencing outbreaks, like China, Iran or Italy.

Adequate staffing in the event of an outbreak is extremely important for long-term care facilities as residents with cognitive impairment will need extra care if they have to quarantined, Collins said.

“When they’re isolated, then they run the risk of developing a delirium, or having further decline both cognitively and functionally,” she said. “It’s not just about bringing in more staff. It’s about mobilizing the staff we have to areas where we need them.”

READ MORE: How two Canadians in China are living amid coronavirus outbreak

Collins said there are three main things older people can do to protect themselves: get vaccinated against influenza and pneumonia; wash hands constantly; and practise good coughing and sneezing etiquette.

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She is also asking family members or volunteers to stay away from facilities if they are feeling unwell.

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“When a home says, ‘please do not visit,’ we are not doing it to be punitive. We’re not trying to penalize anybody,” Collins said. “We want them there. We just don’t want them there when they’re sick.”

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Chartwell, a chain of more than 200 long term care homes in Canada, said it’s monitoring the situation closely and has a response strategy in place in case of an outbreak at any of its residences.

“To ensure the protection of our residents and minimize the transmission of this illness, we have asked our staff to be extra vigilant in cleaning and hand-washing practices while continuing to closely monitor our residents and visitors for any signs or symptoms,” spokesperson Sharon Ranalli said in an email.

READ MORE: COVID-19 — Canadian scientists at forefront of global response to coronavirus

There are now more than 94,000 cases of COVID-19 around the world, including 33 cases in Canada. So far, the outbreak has killed more than 3,200 people around the world.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday a new Cabinet committee to ensure provincial and territorial health authorities have enough resources to respond to a potential outbreak.

This is a moment of real challenge for Canadians, indeed for the world, and we’re all going to be working together to make sure that the impacts are minimized on Canadians,” Trudeau told reporters in Halifax.

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Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said while respiratory illnesses generally target the youngest and oldest populations, COVID-19 has been devastating for older people.

“Coronavirus is a little bit of an odd customer because it’s not attacking children,” said Furness, an associate professor at the University of Toronto. “We don’t know why, but it is going after people who are older and have compromised lung function.”

“The thing that’s common in all of us is as we get older our lungs get weaker.”

READ MORE: Chronic staffing shortage, low wages to blame for B.C. seniors home woes

Furness said long-term care homes, just like cruise ships, are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks as residents living side-by-side can spread of infection more easily through person-to-person contact.

“You put risk-prone people all in one place and you’re just asking for it,” he said. “If you look at the flu outbreaks, for example, [health officials] track institutional outbreaks of the flu and it’s inevitably long-term care homes.”
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Some senior care homes in British Columbia have struggled to stockpile enough medical supplies like surgical masks, N95 masks, gloves and disposable gowns.

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The results of a survey released Feb. 28 from SafeCare B.C., a non-profit that represents long-term care workers, found that more than half of respondents — 57 per cent — reported issues in getting personal protective equipment.

“We have received reports of members starting to run out of supply stockpiles,” Safecare CEO Jennifer Lyle told Global News. “Right now it’s a very small number but this is something we want to have a very sensitive threshold to, so we can be very responsive.

“We have been active in connecting with the B.C. Ministry of Health to flag this as an issue.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Do Canadians really need to stockpile household items?

Lyle said that although the coronavirus is new, facilities already have infectious disease protocols and procedures in place as the winter is peak flu season.

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“It’s really important that people are using personal protective equipment appropriately,” she said. “One of the things we are struggling with is panic buying and inappropriate of stockpiling personal protective equipment.

“This is contributing to the spike in demand for surgical masks and N95 respirators.”

Meanwhile, the Ontario Long Term Care Association said it’s working with the province to assess the need for supplies.

“The Ontario Ministry of Health is assessing supplies and if needed will coordinate and distribute these supplies across the health care sector, to make sure organizations have the supplies they need,” the OLTCA said in a statement.

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