TORONTO — A commission examining the impact of COVID-19 on Ontario’s long-term care system has heard the government rejected proposals that could have helped protect vulnerable residents during the second wave because they were deemed too expensive.
An infectious disease specialist and member of the province’s science advisory group told the Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission the proposals included mechanisms for hospitals to support the long-term care sector, and to ensure seniors wouldn’t be housed three or four to a room during the second wave.
Dr. Allison McGeer said the plans were presented by doctors largely to the Ministry of Health, though some may have gone before the Ministry of Long-Term Care.
“A number of proposals went to the ministry about what could be done; and all of them were deemed by the ministry to be too expensive,” she told the panel.
McGeer was one of several doctors to testify before the commission on March 4 regarding the second wave of the pandemic and why it proved deadlier than the first in the long-term care sector. As of last week, nearly 1,900 long-term care residents had died from the virus during the second wave, the doctors said.
In a recently released transcript, the doctors said the province “chose” not to hire thousands of additional long-term care staff, or place infection-control practitioners in homes, as officials in Quebec did.
While Ontario was better prepared for the second wave, the province didn’t do enough because it mistakenly believed the problems present in the first wave had been resolved, the panel heard.
“I don’t think we could have fixed wave two, I think the issues were too big to be solved in that four-month period,” McGeer said.
“But I also think that there were a number of things that we chose not to do, because pretty much everybody got fooled into thinking that it was going to be OK in the second wave,” she said.
Staffing was already an issue in long-term care before the pandemic, but it grew worse after the first wave as many lost faith in the system and left the sector, Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics for the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, testified.
Even homes with the money to hire more staff were struggling to do so, he said.
What differed in Quebec was that the province took away the barriers to training more personal support workers, in part by paying people to undergo the training, Sinha said. As a result, the government was able to hire about 8,000 new personal support workers trained in infection control by October, he said.
In comparison, Ontario homes were forced to increasingly rely on staffing agencies, which offered inconsistent training and at times required workers to “BYOPPE,” or “bring your own personal protective equipment,” he said.
Dealing with those issues “could have been adequately done over the summer,” Sinha told the commission.
Opposition legislators accused the government of choosing money over lives even as it vowed to put an “iron ring” of protection around the long-term care sector.
“Options were ignored,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in the legislature Tuesday.
“So, while the premier was watching people die in long-term care, and families were mourning the loss of their loved ones, why did he still decide to not spend the money to save those seniors’ lives?”
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrille Fullerton said “no expense was spared” in protecting long-term care residents during the pandemic, and noted many of the problems plaguing the sector predated the pandemic.
“We’re making sure that we address the staffing shortage, both on an emergency level and on a stabilization level,” as well as providing workers with pandemic pay, she said.
A spokeswoman for Fullerton added that suggestions by the NDP and McGreer that the government rejected proposals based on costs were “completely inaccurate and misleading.”
The independent commission, led by the Superior Court’s associate chief justice Frank Marrocco, isn’t open to the public, but transcripts of testimony are posted online days later.
It aims to investigate how the virus spread in long-term care, and issue recommendations aimed at preventing similar outcomes. The commission is expected to submit its final report to the provincial government on April 30.