Quebec ombudsperson to investigate coronavirus crisis response in seniors residences

A resident waves as she is brought into the Vigi Mount Royal seniors residence on Friday May 1, 2020 in Montreal. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s ombudsperson is launching an “impartial and independent” investigation into the handling of the novel coronavirus health crisis in embattled nursing homes by the province and its health network.

Marie Rinfret said in a statement on Tuesday the probe comes as she has concerns over the situation unfolding in seniors residences and the measures implemented to protect the elderly from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Rinfret said the “current crisis is happening in living environments that were vulnerable to begin with and where there were known problems that were often criticized” by her office.

“These include a glaring shortage of staff, difficult work conditions because of this shortage, a high turnover rate for care attendants and insufficient oversight of private residences by the public network,” she said.

READ MORE: Montreal long-term care employee dies from COVID-19

The investigation will specifically look at the role of Quebec’s health and social services ministry and certain public health institutions in the province. Rinfret will investigate their responses to the pandemic in seniors residences.

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Quebec has the highest number of cases and deaths attributable to COVID-19 in the country. It reported 70 additional deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total to 4,139, and it added 614 new cases, for a total of 48,598.

The health crisis has shed light on the state of some long-term care facilities in the province and the challenges they face when it comes to staffing.

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As of Sunday, more than 81 per cent of Quebec’s deaths related to COVID-19 had occurred either at long-term care homes or at private seniors residences.

READ MORE: Family seeks class-action lawsuit against Residence Herron after mother’s death

As the death toll quickly climbed in seniors residences, the province called on health-care professionals, the Canadian Armed Forces and volunteers to help out in beleaguered CHSLDs. The government has also asked for youth to consider working in the facilities earlier this week.

In the wake of the crisis, Premier François Legault said he has not ruled out launching an independent commission into the province’s long-term care home system like Ontario.

Rinfret said the province “must always provide services that meet seniors’ needs.”

“It is also obliged to be better equipped to deal with possible crises as severe as the one we are living through now in order to protect the rights of the citizens who built Quebec and who continue to be part of what it is becoming and will become,” she said.

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As part of the investigation, Rinfret will release a progress report this fall. The full probe is expected to be completed by fall 2021.

‘The more we know, the more we can act in a good way’

The head of the local health authority for the western portion of Montreal and the West Island, which oversees several long-term care centres, said she welcomes any investigation into the delivery of care to patients and residents.

“Our organization will fully co-operate with this investigation,” said CIUSSS de l’Ouest de l’Île president and CEO Lynne McVey.

“We have just received information that it is a general investigation, we have not been briefed as to whether any specific facilities in our organization would be evaluated.”

Pascal Bérubé, the interim party leader of the Parti Québécois, said it is was good to have an independent probe into the situation at long-term care homes.

“The more we know, the more we can act in a good way for the elder people of Quebec,” he said.

The investigation into the coronavirus crisis in the province’s long-term care homes comes the same day as the military completed a report on what its members found at the Ontario facilities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the findings as “deeply disturbing.”

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With files from Global News’ Raquel Fletcher, Jamie Orchard and the Canadian Press

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