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Quebec Premier François Legault said Saturday that he believed there might have been “gross negligence” by management of a private long-term care facility in Montreal that has seen at least 31 deaths since March 13.
The facility, Résidence Herron in Dorval near Montreal’s Trudeau airport, is considered to be a luxury retirement home, with room for about 150 residents. It charges thousands of dollars per month for housing and care for each resident.
Legault made the comments in the wake of revelations about troubling conditions inside the seniors home that came to light more than a week after local public officials descended on the building and discovered what was going on with the disease spreading among patients and staff.
He was supposed to take the day off on Saturday, but Legault said he decided instead to speak directly to the population because he thought what had happened in the home was outrageous.
Officials were only able to confirm the staggering number of deaths on Friday night and the premier was blunt, when asked by reporters about what had caused the tragedy in the home for seniors.
“Obviously, there’s an investigation, so I should be cautious, but I don’t feel like it,” he told reporters at a news conference in Quebec City. “You know it doesn’t make sense when you arrive at a facility and the majority of the staff are gone. So I think it looks a lot like gross negligence.”
Local health-care officials first arrived on March 29 and found a lot of staff had deserted the facility, leaving many residents lying in soiled beds without having been fed. Two patients died soon after the intervention and at least five of the deceased patients were confirmed to have COVID-19, Legault said.
The other cases remain under investigation.
The premier said the first patient from the home was transported to the Jewish General Hospital on March 26, leading up to the first official visit from health officials, three days later. The owner of Résidence Herron refused to let go of the files until Friday night, said Legault.
On Saturday, Lynne McVey, the president and CEO of the health and social services centre in Montreal’s West Island region said health officials quickly determined, after they arrived, that the facility was short-staffed and would need support from other health-care workers to help clean and feed the residents.
One nurse who arrived on scene as a volunteer, Loredana Mule, described shocking conditions.
“We went from room to room, and in every room, the stench of urine and feces could have killed a horse,” she told Global News in an interview.
The owner of the residence, a Gatineau real estate company called Katasa, also owns six other retirement homes, along with commercial and residential buildings in the Montreal and Ottawa/Gatineau regions.
It did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokeswoman told City News on Wednesday that it was trying its best to protect staff and serve residents under difficult circumstances.
McVey, from the regional health authority, said that public officials weren’t able to get all of the answers they needed and contact families because the owner of the facility refused to provide access to clinical files, until the government issued an order on April 8.
This was also the same day that City News published comments from an interview with Mule, the volunteer nurse, who provided the first detailed glimpse of what was happening inside the building.
Legault said the province would be reviewing activities at all of Katasa’s facilities and that the Ministries of Health and Public Safety had requested that Montreal police launch an investigation. He also said officials would be following up at about 40 private long-term care facilities in Quebec to ensure that they are reporting numbers and information that reflect what is happening on the inside.
This isn’t the first time complaints were raised about care provided by the Herron facility.
In 2017, a provincial watchdog, the Protecteur du citoyen, concluded an investigation into complaints about the treatment of patients, by warning that the facility’s staff were stretched and would struggle to handle an increase in the number of residents, even though it was found to be providing adequate services at that time.
The watchdog’s investigation also concluded that the facility needed to revise its process for reviewing complaints and improve how it communicates with families of its patients.
Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann told reporters on Saturday that she didn’t know whether corrective action was taken.
But McCann added that public health officials had quickly taken charge of the situation after arriving at the home.
“So it’s a dire situation, but it was corrected,” she said. “And now, as we mentioned, we realize, because we had difficulty with the owner … collaborating and we finally got the keys to open some of the areas.”
McVey said that staff have since divided the residence into three zones, including a red zone for confirmed COVID-19 patients, a yellow zone for suspected cases and a green zone for others, in order to prevent the disease from spreading.
But some families have said they were frustrated about how long it took health officials to take control of the situation, noting that they had been kept in the dark about how their relatives were doing in the home.
Peter Wheeland said his family pulled his mother out of the home and moved her to a hospital out of concerns that there weren’t enough staff at the home to handle the challenging situation and provide updates.
“My mother was left in soiled diapers for three hours last week,” Wheeland told Global News. “We’re all hugely relieved that my mother is out of there.”
McVey said that it was seeking to reach all families on Saturday, while noting that their efforts to reach them had been challenging, while monitoring for risks across the network.
“We haven’t been perfect, and in our private nursing homes, we have staffing concerns,” she said.
On Friday afternoon, the government announced they will be forming an expert committee to look into how CHSLDs and private residences are handling the COVID-19 crisis across the province.
The government revealed that six CHSLDs, in particular, are being severely affected by the highly-contagious virus: The CHSLD Laflèche in Shawinigan, CHSLD of Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci in Montreal, CHSLD La Pinière in Laval, CHSLD LaSalle in Montreal and the Alfred-Desrochers Pavillion in Montreal.
Also Friday, Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais and McCann said a new plan would be put in place to tackle the issues within the residence. The measures will include increased screening, prioritizing facilities that currently have outbreaks, and increasing support to health care workers.
— With files from Global’s Raquel Fletcher