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Long-term care homes remain vulnerable to second COVID-19 wave, insiders say

Click to play video 'COVID-19 enters long-term care homes again through community spread' COVID-19 enters long-term care homes again through community spread
WATCH: Community spread of COVID-19 is again infiltrating Canada's long-term care facilities, where a staffing shortage remains a major problem. Mike Drolet looks at the concerns over band-aid solutions, and the questions about the qualifications of Red Cross workers, who are being brought in to help – Oct 19, 2020

Fear and anxiety have taken over in Canada’s long-term care homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and industry insiders say it will take more than a federal band-aid solution to fix them.

According to the International Long-term Care Policy Network, eight in 10 coronavirus-related deaths in Canada have been in LTC homes. In Ontario, there are now 86 LTC homes dealing with outbreaks, up from 71 over the weekend.

Toronto, Ottawa and Peel regions have announced new precautions to slow the spread, including cancelling social excursions and allowing residents to leave their homes only for medical or compassionate reasons.

Still, to avoid a repeat of what happened in the first wave, industry insiders say they need to hire more qualified staff.

Read more: PM believes Canada has ‘more tools’ than in first wave of COVID-19 to avoid a second shutdown

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“You know, calling (personal support workers) heroes on the front line or throwing them a couple extra bucks here or there for a few months, that’s temporary,” says Miranda Ferrier of the National Personal Support Workers (PSW) Association.

“We need a solid, permanent solution.”

But it doesn’t appear many believe a solution is coming.  Donna Duncan of the Ontario Long Term Care Association told an independent commission, investigating how COVID-19 spread so quickly through the system, they had an acute staffing shortage in part because the LTC industry pays less with fewer benefits than hospital workers doing the same job.

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She told the commission, “are we ready? We’re concerned that we’re not.”

“While we certainly would have preferred for action in the spring and through the summer months, this is where we are,” she said. “So we’ve got the plan. We’ve got the foundation. Now we have to mobilize. But it is very clear to us the tone and approach of this phase has to be different.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called in the military to help in the hardest-hit facilities. Just last week he released funds for the Red Cross to hire workers to assist PSWs in LTC homes.

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The Red Cross declined to say how many Canadians had applied for the posted jobs.

On its website, the job is called “support aide” and involves socializing with seniors, feeding them and making sure they’re safe.  To qualify for the job, applicants need to have a passion for working with seniors and pass a police check, something standards seniors advocate Jane Meadus says would never have been accepted pre-pandemic.

“Well, I think we’ve learned something (from the first wave),” Meadus says.  “The question is, have we provided any solutions? And I think those are two different questions.”

Meadus says the other issue with the job posting is that it’s likely support staff will be asked to help out in areas where they’re lacking training.

“If you’re trying to move somebody in there with a lift and there’s nobody else to help you,” Meadus says,” you’re going to grab somebody who’s available.  That’s going to be an untrained worker. And that’s unsafe for both the worker as well as the resident.

Read more: Canada extends border restrictions with United States until late November

Maureen McDermott, for one, is terrified at the prospect of a second wave.  Her mother, Elsie, lives in a Sutton, Ont., nursing home.  She has Alzheimer’s, COPD and caught COVID-19 on Mother’s Day.

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The situation in her home was so bad it was closed to non-essential workers for six months.  When it finally reopened, daughter Maureen discovered her 93-year old mother no longer knew who she was.

“So now pretty much every moment that I spend with her is really sacred and precious,” she says.  “And going forward, we’re into a second wave with cases coming up in long term-care homes going into outbreak. And it’s just like déjà vu. It’s all coming back again.”

She likens her feelings of anxiety to PTSD, which is why she’s speaking out.  She sees the Trudeau plan to use Red Cross workers in LTC homes as nothing more than a band-aid solution.

“You know, I’m doing petitions,” McDermott says.  “Everyone’s doing petitions for change. So it kind of seems like (Trudeau) stepped up with his hero biscuit and went, ‘OK Red Cross. That’s what’s going to happen. They’re the ones that are going to come in.’

“Well, again, that’s great. But what is it fixing?”