As British Columbia continues to grapple with the fifth pandemic wave, its top doctor has confirmed that roughly 40 per cent of its COVID-19 deaths in January have been related to long-term care outbreaks.
There are around 60 outbreaks of the virus in long-term care, acute care and assisted or independent living facilities across the province.
Age continues to be the “most important risk factor” in dealing with the virus, said Dr. Bonnie Henry, in a briefing held on the two-year anniversary of the first case detected in B.C.
“Nobody has suffered more than our seniors and elders,” she said. “We need to pause and remember the impacts across families and across communities in British Columbia where we’ve lost so many, particularly our seniors and elders.”
Most of people who died from a COVID-19 case unrelated to long-term care outbreaks in B.C. this month were “older people with underlying illnesses,” Henry added, a “high proportion” of whom were not fully or partially-immunized.
Her comments come as Canada passes a tragic marker: 16,000 deaths in long-term care since the pandemic began.
More than 34 per cent of Canada’s 6,029 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak, according to the latest figures from the National Institute on Aging.
That’s twice as many homes as the second-highest peak in long-term care outbreaks, when 1,000 homes were infected last January, according to Dr. Samir Sinha, NIA’s director of health policy research.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, he noted NIA’s data shows that B.C. has done a better job of keeping infections down than some other provinces.
“It feels like they have made some progress in terms of how they’re applying lessons learned,” he said.
Despite calls from experts, advocacy groups and the families of residents in long-term care, however, B.C. has not wavered in its fifth-wave restriction of permitting only one “essential visitor” to visit each resident.
Henry said Friday this approach balances transmission and outbreak risk with the physical and mental health needs of long-term care residents.
In a Global News interview, however, a long-term care researcher called the policy “ridiculous.”
“It is ridiculous to me that your government has not done that for these families. I have met with many British Columbia long-term care families and what they have been through is traumatic to a level I cannot put properly in words.”
This week, the Health Standards Organization released the draft of a long-called-for set of national standards for long-term care in Canada — a blueprint for governments to improve care in facilities nationwide.
The document contains new sections that focus on governance and collecting data for quality improvement as well as a section on diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural safety.
It also clearly defines what a designated support person, caregiver or essential caregiver is.
“A person or persons chosen by a resident to participate in the resident’s ongoing care,” the newly-included definition states. They are not members of the LTC home’s workforce, it adds.
“Residents have the right to include or not include any of their designated support persons in any aspect of their personal and other care, and to change who they wish to identify as a designated support person.”
Highlights in the document for Stamatopoulos include an emphasis on improving workplace conditions in long-term care homes, so that resident care can improve, and an emphasis on the right of residents to choose to live with risk.
She lamented, however, the lack of teeth in the document and the omission of what she called “the elephant in the room” — eliminating the for-profit long-term care model.
“Nobody is saying to overnight buy up all the for-profit homes, but what we would and we should have seen in this document which is glaringly absent … was indeed the aspect of ownership,” she explained.
“Frankly the experts I’ve spoken to agree with me that there is no getting around actual improvements until we get rid of the for-profit model.”
In its last federal budget, Ottawa committed $3 billion to improving long-term care, but it has not committed to implementing the new recommended national standards.
— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Aya Al-Hakim and Saba Aziz