Are Canadian Nursing Homes Prepared for a Second Wave of COVID-19?

wheelchair in hallway

The first wave of COVID-19 in Canada devastated the country’s long-term care and nursing homes. Nationwide, Canadians older than 60 accounted for 96 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths; 80 per cent of all deaths occurred in long-term care facilities. The tragic numbers laid bare that nursing homes in many provinces, including Ontario, are ill-equipped to face serious health emergencies. Family members of deceased and seriously ill residents have sought compensation through class action nursing home negligence lawsuits.

As the first wave subsided and society returned to a semblance of normalcy, Ontario stakeholders examined what went wrong at hard hit facilities like Orchard Villa in Pickering and Lundy Manor in Niagara Falls.

“That is one of the most damning failures that’s taken place through the pandemic,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of health and social policy at the University Health Network, to CBC News about the springtime failures of Ontario’s long-term care system. “If we were going to be judged by how we protected our most susceptible and people who are structurally vulnerable – we failed them.”

Experts carried out post-mortems and delivered recommendations for responding to future outbreaks. There was mild hope that the disaster would serve as a warning against future negligence. Numerous stakeholders called for the implementation of national care standards, including the Prime Minister.

“We will be working with the provinces and territories to set new national standards on long-term care,” Justin Trudeau announced at a news conference. “The systems we had were inadequate all across the country. They were not up to the task of protecting our seniors appropriately.”

In July, a report from the Royal Society of Canada, an association of leading scholars and scientists, called on the federal government to “immediately” enact national care standards. That call was echoed by Toronto physician and health-justice advocate Dr. Naheed Dosani in a CBC interview.

“They already suffered in the first wave,” Dr. Dosani said. “My hope is that they don’t have to suffer and less people have to die in the second wave. Why would we allow this to happen in the second wave? The federal government has the ability to set that bar where it needs to be so that standard of care is met so that doesn’t have to happen again.”

In addition to calls for a national care standard, various infection control and long-term care experts submitted to the Government of Ontario recommendations for avoiding a deadly second wave in the province’s long-term care homes. One group delivered those recommendations in a 60-page letter to Premier Doug Ford, which read: “In the absence of these measures and support from the government, Ontario’s long-term care homes are not currently ready to manage a second wave of COVID-19.”

“We don’t want to see the same kind of disasters that we were seeing in the spring where we had all these people dying and the people that were living were basically living in squalor,” infectious disease expert Dr. Anna Banerji told the CBC. “If that occurs again, it’s a real failure.

By the end of September, a second wave of infections had taken hold in Ontario. The province recorded a new single-day infection record on September 28, and analysts predicted new infections would peak at more than 1,000 per day by mid- to late-October. Any hope that long-term care facilities would be better prepared for the second wave quickly disappeared. At least 20 nursing homes reported outbreaks by September 21, including West End Villa, in Ottawa, where at least 15 residents have died.

The Province failed to implement many of the recommendations delivered following the first wave. In Quebec, 8,000 long-term care workers were hired in preparation for a new wave of infections; 7,000 were hired in British Columbia. Ontario did not conduct a similar hiring blitz.

“British Columbia has about half of the long-term care residents as compared to Ontario but only had one-tenth of the deaths,” Dr. Amit Arya told CTV News. “We have yet to see a similar response in Ontario.”

Even beyond the province’s failure to enact emergency infection control measures, and beyond the federal government’s failure to deliver national care guidelines, Ontario’s long-term care system has for years faced a litany of challenges, including understaffing and overcrowding, which compounded its COVID-19 failures. These challenges are also the source of numerous nursing home negligence lawsuits over the years.

“Even before the pandemic we had one nurse looking after you know, 32 residents in the day and over 60 at night and that’s not feasible, and obviously, as we can imagine, those staffing ratios are even worse since the pandemic started,” Arya said.

If you or a member of your family has been affected by a COVID-19 outbreak in an Ontario nursing home, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with an experienced nursing home negligence lawyer. Our team has already initiated several class proceedings against long-term care facilities who failed to provide a reasonable standard of care during the first wave of the pandemic. We would be happy to review your claim and provide guidance on how to move forward.

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