Deaths and COVID-19 outbreaks at care homes renew calls to better protect Alberta seniors

Click to play video: 'Over 1,000 Alberta seniors in care have died from COVID-19'
Over 1,000 Alberta seniors in care have died from COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta has reached a grim milestone, with 1,000 people living in seniors' care now having died from the disease. That's nearly two thirds of all the deaths recorded in the province. This raises more questions about what we can do to better protect those most vulnerable. Fletcher Kent reports – Jan 26, 2021

Leslie Beard doesn’t like to use the word “lucky” to describe those at the Wildrose Retirement Residence. But people living there are certainly fortunate.

The seniors facility is one of six Edmonton long-term care or designated supportive living facilities to not experience a COVID-19 outbreak.

Fifty-six of Edmonton’s 62 such sites have had to manage an outbreak at some point in the past year. Of those outbreaks, seniors died at 40 sites.

Beard is a spokesperson for the Wildrose Retirement Residence. She says everyone at the facility takes COVID-19 precautions seriously. They continually educate staff but she can’t put a finger on why they’re the exception to the rule.

“I don’t think that there’s anything different. We’ve talked to other facilities and everybody is doing their absolute best,” Beard said.

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“I think what it really comes down to is the people.”

There have been COVID-19 cases amongst staff but screening procedures at the facility worked. Employees were kept away while sick and COVID-19 stayed away from vulnerable residents.

Click to play video: 'Alberta long-term care residents to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccine'
Alberta long-term care residents to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccine

Beard says staff are just following Alberta Health directives but she points out real success requires more than that. People need to embrace the rules not just accept them.

“Once you’ve done that, you really need the buy-in from everyone. You need buy in from the staff, from residents.

“You need the buy-in from family members. Everybody has to do their part or it’s not going to work.”

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The Opposition NDP argues protecting seniors isn’t working when a site that hasn’t had an outbreak or death is the exception to a morbid rule.

“Something’s wrong. There’s a lot wrong actually. People’s lives are being lost,” said Lori Sigurdson, NDP Seniors and Housing critic.

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Sigurdson laments another recent, grim milestone. One-thousand Albertans have died from COVID-19 while living in a seniors facility.

She wants the province to spend more on staff. Sigurdson says Alberta needs more care-home workers and they need to better paid so there’s less turnover.

Click to play video: 'Vaccine confusion at Alberta senior care homes'
Vaccine confusion at Alberta senior care homes


The NDP says the pandemic has highlighted other shortcomings in Alberta’s continuing-care system and the province needs to look at more long-term changes too.

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“I think doing a review of our continuing-care system after the pandemic is something very important and essential, that the government do.”

An Alberta Health spokesperson says Alberta has already directed millions of dollars to help protect vulnerable seniors.

It has directed $260 million to help continuing-care operators. That money includes wage top ups for health-care aides. Another half a billion dollars has gone to Alberta Health Services to cover general additional COVID-related costs.

There are also multiple reviews underway.

MLA Richard Gotfried is heading a study of the legislation governing continuing care.

Consultations began Jan. 4 with the launch of a public survey. The province hopes to hear back from several seniors groups and health workers.

READ MORE: Should more be done to protect seniors facilities as COVID-19 cases rise in Alberta?

Steve Buick with Alberta Health says:

“We’ve had a huge response to the consultation already. We’ve received over 4,900 completed surveys, including 3,000 from residents and family members and 600 from health-care workers.”

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The final report is due this spring and changes to continuing-care legislation will be introduced this fall.

Click to play video: 'Keeping COVID-19 out of senior care homes requires community support'
Keeping COVID-19 out of senior care homes requires community support

Alberta is conducting a second review into the province’s overall COVID-19 response. KPGM is overseeing that review. It will analyze decisions around the health system and the economy, governance, procurement and engagement with other governments and stakeholders.

The province expects this report will also be completed this spring.

On the number of COVID-19 deaths in seniors facilities, Steve Buick says: “Our death rate from COVID overall and in continuing care is much lower than the national average but it’s still far too high.

“We feel for every family that has lost a loved one and we’re determined to learn from this tragedy to make the system safer.”

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British Columbia just released a report which reviewed that province’s long-term care COVID-19 response.

The report says single-site policies that allowed care home workers to work at only one facility along with wage leveling policies helped reduce the number of outbreaks and deaths in British Columbia.

Click to play video: 'Challenging visitation rules in B.C. long-term care homes'
Challenging visitation rules in B.C. long-term care homes

However, the report said policy and procedures still need to change.

The report says: “Single site order has been an important factor in mitigating spread. While it remains in place, the ministry should consider increasing FTE allocation above the budgeted baseline to help operators manage absences such as sick time and vacation without having to use overtime or causal staff.”

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The report also recommends audits of infection prevention and control standards, centralize the management of personal protective equipment, and re-consider how seniors facilities are built in the future.

A “professionalizing of the workforce” is also recommended.

The report suggests a new focus on attracting, training and retaining care-home staff.

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