‘A tinderbox waiting to explode’: 10 deaths from COVID-19 at northern Alberta seniors’ residence

Of the 62 residents at Manoir du Lac seniors’ residence in McLennan, Alta., 42 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Ten of them have died.

Thirteen staff members have also tested positive.

Last Friday, Alberta Health Services took over the day-to-day operation of the facility, located about 440 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced the move in her daily COVID-19 update.

“The health and safety of residents in our seniors’ care facilities is of utmost importance,” Hinshaw said, “and these measures are being taken to ensure that residents get the care they need.”

By the time that extraordinary step was taken, Manoir du Lac was experiencing a full-blown crisis.

Health care staffing levels were reduced to just eight people: director of care Karla Anderson, two nurses and five health-care aides. Ordinarily, Manoir du Lac employed eight nurses and 25 health-care aides.

“It just seemed like things were getting worse and worse and worse every day,” Anderson said.

She said the problems began after staff attended some parties in mid-March.

“Not only did they have one party, my understanding is there was a series of parties over a couple of weeks,” Anderson said. “Someone from outside the area came to one of those parties. He didn’t realize he had already been infected from going to the gym. Then, in turn, he infected several staff.”

Staff continued to work at the seniors’ facility over the next week, unaware that they were spreading coronavirus between themselves and the residents.

Karla Anderson and her son Malcolm Sondrup were among those escorted off the property by peace officers last Friday. ( Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

“The day we found out, I sent everybody home,” she said. “But by then it was too late because the staff had worked the entire building.”

She ordered self-isolation for 10 health-care aides, one person who worked in the kitchen and another who worked in housekeeping.

The first staff member tested positive at the end of March. So did the first resident.

Some staff members called in sick. Others stopped going to work because they were scared.

Anderson said she asked Alberta Health Services for help with extra staffing and resources at the end of March. Instead, she lost an additional six nurses and five health-care aides who were told they could only work at one facility.

“That’s really when we went into a full-blown crisis,” Anderson said. “I just moved in and I was working 20-hour days.”

Alberta Health Services takes over

Anderson called on her two adult children to work with her in the facility. Kitchen, laundry and housekeeping staff pitched in to help deliver meals to residents who, by then, were quarantined in their rooms.

A couple of weeks ago, Alberta Health Services showed up unannounced to inspect Manoir du Lac. Anderson said she was sleeping at the time and no one woke her up so she could answer their questions.

Anderson said AHS returned to the facility last Wednesday but spoke to no one. Then on Friday, health officials showed up again along with three peace officers to remove Anderson, her children and the operations manager from the premises.

Anderson said she told one of the local managers how she felt.

“Shame on you,” Anderson said she told her. “You know this is not fair. You know how hard I worked day and night to keep these people alive. To make up for the fact that I had no staff and practically nursed everybody all by myself for three weeks.”

One of the facility owners says he feels equally betrayed.

Gene Zinyk is the president of Integrated Life Care and co-owner of Manoir du Lac. ( Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

“I will co-operate,” Integrated Life Care president Gene Zinyk told CBC News. “My whole mandate here is to look after the residents. So if they had told me that ‘we’re going to come in and give you assistance’ or ‘we have to come in and run this for 90 days,’ I would have co-operated.

“But they didn’t do that. They totally blindsided me.”

The day after she was removed from Manoir du Lac, Anderson said her car tires were slashed.

“Another nurse that also worked there got her tires slashed as well,” Anderson said.

But she thinks most of the anger in the town of 800 is not directed at her.

“There actually seems to be quite a bit of support, which is quite nice,” Anderson said. “More anger with Alberta Health Services with how they’ve handled things.”

A spokesperson with Alberta Health Services told CBC News that there are now 60 to 70 staff members working at Manoir du Lac, including existing staff members bolstered by contracted and redeployed registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and health-care aides.

“An AHS seniors health manager has been seconded to direct day-to-day operations and is on site full-time,” Kerry Williamson said in an email.

The residents’ rooms have been sanitized and restoration cleaning is being done, but the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the facility continues to rise.

Anderson said residents have been calling her this week.

“I’m very worried, especially since some of them are contacting me and saying ‘Karla, I’m not getting food’,” she said. “‘Karla, they forgot about me today. Karla, they haven’t even come to change me today.’ So this is what worries me.”

Williamson said clients are receiving appropriate care.

“AHS staff are committed to providing Manoir du Lac clients with the care they need,” he said. “This includes bathing, receiving meals and their appropriate medications. All residents are assessed daily by their care teams and are regularly being monitored.”

One resident, who asked not to be identified because she fears retribution from the current staff, told CBC News she doesn’t think the facility is being cleaned properly. But her biggest complaint is being left out of the loop while she’s confined to her room.

Banner placed outside Manoir du Lac for residents to see. ( Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

“It’s our building, our friends and nobody’s mentioning anything to us,” the woman said in an interview. “They keep us like a mushroom. I live here. I have a right to know.”

The resident said she had been getting all of her information online and claimed that when she asked staff questions, she was told, “It’s none of your business.”

She’s in her room scared as she keeps losing friends in the facility to COVID-19.

‘COVID-19 was the fuse’

Francois Brochu, is one of the 10 Manoir du Lac residents who died. The 86-year-old former rancher tested positive for coronavirus on April 15. His family wasn’t notified until April 19 when his daughter in Saskatoon got a phone call from the facility late in the afternoon.

Cheri McPhillamey celebrates Francois Brochu’s 80th birthday in May 2013. (Cheri McPhillamey)

Cheri McPhillamey was told her father wasn’t doing well and was failing.

“I said ‘Pardon me? He’s failing at what?'” McPhillamey said. “The nurse informed me that, ‘Your dad has the COVID virus.'”

McPhillamey and her husband began driving to Alberta. Four hours into the trip, she received another phone call, telling her that her father had died.

She’s frustrated and angry. But she thinks the tragedy unfolding at Manoir du Lac, and at so many other seniors’ residences across the country, should serve as a wake-up call about what she calls the warehousing of our seniors.

“This was a tinderbox waiting to explode,” McPhillamey said.

“I think COVID-19 was the fuse. It lit it on fire.”

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