Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:58 a.m. on April 16, 2020 with additional background and context.
At least two nurses who worked at Résidence Herron in Dorval say they were being asked to work in unsafe conditions as the private retirement home became an epicentre of COVID-19 with dozens of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and over 30 deaths.
The nurses described their working conditions after Global News reported about internal documents released by the facility’s owner, Katasa, which revealed that two health-care staff with symptoms of COVID-19 continued to work in the building.
Both nurses would later test positive for the virus. One of the two believed that their own infection started a few days earlier, on March 22, after treating an infected patient.
This nurse said they were forced to bring in their own protective mask since the company didn’t provide one.
The company told Global News in a statement on Monday that it faced a shortage of personal protective equipment, like many other health-care facilities, and that it had formally asked the local health authority for help with supplies on March 23.
Public health officials have warned that the virus could be extremely deadly to the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions, and almost half of the hundreds of COVID-19-related deaths across Canada over the past few weeks have occurred in long-term care facilities.
At least 31 residents have died at the long-term care facility near Montreal’s Trudeau airport since late March. Five of those people were confirmed to have COVID-19, while other cases remain under investigation.
The facility charges thousands of dollars per month for each resident, offering what it describes in its marketing as a “luxury” experience for seniors.
But as COVID-19 spread throughout hundreds of retirement homes across Canada, the two nurses at the Herron residence alleged that they felt pressure from management to keep working, despite displaying symptoms of the contagious disease and not having adequate protective gear.
Global News has agreed not to name the nurses since they were not authorized to speak publicly.
“I’m really sad,” said one registered nurse about the tragic turn of events.
“The people we were taking care of we treated like our grandparents,” said the other health-care worker.
The health-care workers spoke about their experiences on Wednesday as Quebec Premier François Legault said he was looking into newspaper reports by the Montreal Gazette and La Presse that alleged the president of the company Katasa, which owns Résidence Herron, had a criminal past.
Samir Showieri, president and co-owner of Katasa, previously received a two-year sentence for being a part of a drug trafficking conspiracy in 1981, The Gazette reported.
A public relations consultant who was speaking for the company dismissed the relevance of this information, noting that the Parole Board of Canada had issued a “record suspension” in 2014.
Katasa, a Gatineau-based company which owns several retirement homes, residential and commercial buildings in Ontario and Quebec, did not respond to questions from Global News on Tuesday and Wednesday about why nurses showing symptoms of the virus might have been allowed to work.
The two nurses in question were on the job on different floors of the building until March 27, according to test results that were attached to messages exchanged by public health officials and the facility’s management.
The correspondence, which Katasa released to media outlets earlier in the week, show that public health officials believed the virus had started spreading in the Herron residence in mid-March. By March 27, the nurses and many core staff members were forced to walk off the job due to exposure to the virus that had left dozens of people in the building with symptoms and requiring others to self isolate.
This prompted local public health officials to intervene on March 29 to send in public health-care workers who attempted to take over the interim management of the building.
The regional health agency and volunteers claim they discovered horrific conditions in the building when they arrived, saying that many residents appeared to have been left hungry and thirsty for an extended period of time in soiled beds.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Lucio D’Intino of Le Regroupement provincial des comités des usagers (RPCU). The RPCU represents 600 users committees in hospitals and long-term care facilities across the province.
“We’ve heard the premier speaking so many times in the past week, saying that the material is there and yet we’re still hearing people working in these horrible conditions,” said D’Intino.
“We simply cannot sit back and do nothing about this.”
Public health officials say that staffing and supplies have improved at Résidence Herron in recent days after the officials ordered the company to turn over all clinical files and keys to the building. In a statement to Global News, the West Island CIUSSS, the regional health agency, enumerated a long list of actions that have been taken since the facility was put under trusteeship, including:
- The creation of a hot zone to isolate infected residents and thereby limit the spread of COVID-19;
- The addition of health workers;
- The provision of additional protective equipment as required;
- The visit of two geriatricians to the residence to support the teams in reassessing the condition of all residents.
Another one of Katasa’s owners, Katherine Chowieri, the daughter of Samir Chowieri, told Global News in an interview on Monday that public health officials had not ensured that staff were preventing the spread of the virus after March 29, when they arrived in the building.
“They were roaming around,” said Katherine Chowieri in the interview. “There was no confinement or isolation done of patients that were supposedly COVID positive.”
It is not known how many staff and residents had already been infected at that time, but testing data released to the media by Katasa, indicated that about 20 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 soon after the local health authority had arrived to take over management.
In correspondence shared by the company, Samantha Chowieri blamed the regional health officials at Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (IUHSSC) for creating a “catastrophic” situation once they took control on March 29.
This includes allegations that staff, under the supervision of local public health officials, did not consult clinical charts prior to treating and medicating patients and that they failed to isolate patients with COVID-19.
In her interview with Global News on Monday, Katherine Chowieri also confirmed that the Herron residence had “issues” with staffing.
Meantime, Premier Legault expressed concerns after hearing about past criminal allegations against Samir Chowieri.
“It’s unacceptable for me if it’s really the truth,” said Legault on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve asked my people to check how come we have background checks for employees but not for owners.”
In a statement from the company, a representative claims the owners did face a background check when they were awarded a permit.