‘Heart-wrenching’: Families recount deadly COVID-19 outbreak at Ontario nursing home

A COVID-19 outbreak that was declared on Jan. 8 has ravaged an Ontario nursing home, killing 54 people and infecting all but one of the 129 residents.

For staff, the outbreak has been exhausting, according to Ian DeWaard, the Ontario director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), the union that represents 115 Roberta Place workers.

“My sense, generally, is that they’re scared,” he said of staff. “They’ve been putting in long hours, long days, and for many of them, they’ve isolated themselves in hotels away from their own families, so that’s just adding to the strain.”

Read more: Inspector finds residents with COVID-19 weren’t cohorted, isolated at Barrie, Ont. nursing home

Last week, public health confirmed the U.K. variant, which is believed to be up to 70 per cent more contagious than earlier novel coronavirus strains, played a role in the rapid spread of infection at Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., which has become “ground zero” for what officials have called a “variant of concern.”

On Jan. 16, more than a week after the outbreak was declared, Ontario’s Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit issued an order to allow Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital to temporarily lead Roberta Place in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Canadian Red Cross was also deployed to assist with the situation.

Read more: ‘A humanitarian crisis’: Long-term care advocates push for change following Roberta Place outbreak

Health officials have said it’s unclear exactly how the U.K. variant made its way into the home but noted a staff member came into contact with someone who travelled internationally and tested positive for COVID-19.

As of 1 p.m. Friday, 128 residents and 84 staff have become infected with the novel coronavirus, while 53 residents have passed way, according to Roberta Place.

In addition, seven redeployed staff members, three external partners and four essential caregivers — one of whom has died — have tested positive as of Friday afternoon, according to a public health official.

Here are some of the residents’ stories as told by their family members:

Al Swan, 95 

Swan’s granddaughter describes her ‘grandie’ as brave, sweet and kind. He loved his family and sports. Photo supplied by Ashley Macfarlane

Al Swan was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at Roberta Place, according to his granddaughter. He passed away at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) on Jan. 14.

Swan’s granddaughter, Ashley Macfarlane, described her “grandie” as brave, loving, sweet and kind. His life was full of family and sports — Macfarlane said Swan was very active and skated and golfed until he was in his mid-late 80s. He also previously worked in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“There’s a lot of things I love that I tried because of him,” Macfarlane said. “He always gave me the biggest hug.”

A couple weeks ago, Swan fell in his room and needed stitches. He was sent to the hospital, and it was there where staff found he had a fever and tested him for the novel coronavirus.

“It came back positive … That was the seventh or eighth of January,” Macfarlane said. “He declined rather quickly, so on the 13th, (my mom) got the phone call that he was palliative.”

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Macfarlane said she thinks Roberta Place did what it could to control the coronavirus outbreak but that the government should have stepped in a lot sooner.

“My biggest concern and question right now is, why are we allowing people to travel outside of this county and inside of this country from outside?”

On Friday, amid concerns of emerging COVID-19 variants, the federal government announced new quarantine rules and flight suspensions to sun destinations to crack down on non-essential travel.

Bill O’Neill, 97 

Bill O’Neill celebrated his 97th birthday this past week. His daughter described him as ‘incredibly tenacious, spontaneous and vibrant.’. Photo provided by Mary Murphy

Bill O’Neill celebrated his 97th birthday at Roberta Place on Jan. 24. He died four days later after an almost three-week battle with COVID-19.

Originally from Ireland, O’Neill served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. As a motion picture sound recording engineer, he travelled all across the world. He enjoyed cross-country skiing, tennis and swimming.

His daughter Mary Murphy described him as “incredibly tenacious, spontaneous, and vibrant.”

He always wanted to make people laugh. He always wanted to have experiences,” she told Global News.

Read more: 99 people mostly linked to Barrie, Ont., nursing home outbreak test positive for COVID-19 variant

On his last day, Murphy went to visit him and noticed from across the window that her father was not breathing or moving, before she alerted the staff to check up on him.

“My husband was upset that they didn’t even know he was dead. I had to tell them,” she said.

Going forward, Murphy hopes that lessons can be learned from the Roberta Place crisis and that the episode does not get swept under the carpet or forgotten.

“Something meaningful needs to come from all of this,” she said.

Margaret Dynes, 83

Margaret Dynes’ daughter described her as ‘full of energy and hard work.’ Dynes passed away on Jan. 23 after contracting COVID-19. Photo supplied by Pat Fergusson

Margaret Dynes was a mother, grandmother and great grandmother who lived her final days out in Roberta Place after she contracted COVID-19 and passed away on Jan. 23 at age 83.

Dynes’ daughter, Pat Fergusson, describes her mother as “a little spitfire,” full of energy and hard work. She was a retired nurse, who also moved to the United States and became a realtor, before she moved back to Canada in about 2013.

When Fergusson got the call that her mom had tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Jan. 12, she was devastated.

For the first few days, Dynes seemed okay — she wasn’t experiencing many COVID-19 symptoms, and her family thought she might pull through. But in the days that followed, Dynes became more sick and her condition went downhill.

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“It was just awful listening to my mum breathe,” Fergusson said, describing a final phone call with her mother. “It was very laboured breathing, and it was heart-wrenching, to be honest. My mother couldn’t talk.”

Fergusson said her mother received “exemplary” care at Roberta Place, but she believes Ontario’s long-term care system needs an overhaul.

“It needs to be a priority for the government — that much I know — and dealt with so that all these people that are going to be in line for long-term care at some point in the near future don’t have to be faced with another crisis like this.”

Beryl Taggart, 73 

Beryl Taggart has been a resident at Roberta Place for more than a year-and-a-half. Photo provided by Jeremy Taggart

Beryl Taggart tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 20. The 73-year-old, who has severe dementia, has been living at Roberta Place since July 2019.

Her son, Jeremy Taggart, said he was gripped with fear when he first got the news.

“The same fear that I had when … I heard that there was a case there. I felt a pit in my stomach,” he told Global News.

Taggart, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont., said the outbreak at Roberta Place could have been avoided if the vaccinations had taken place in December. He expressed his frustration at the Ontario government’s handling of the crisis.

Read more: Ontario modelling shows coronavirus cases declining, but variant poses ‘significant threat’

“I’ve been upset and mad at (Minister of LTC) Merrilee Fullerton and (Premier) Doug Ford for just kind of putting off everything and saying that this is not an issue and that everything is fine. It’s absolutely not.“

Taggart described his mother as a very loving and patient person. She is fond of art, drawing and history.

“She loves talking about her kids. She’s always been … one of those types of people that if you bump into them, you know they have a good heart right away.”

Jane Fokkens, 84 

Jane Fokkens is an 84-year-old Roberta Place resident. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 more than a week ago. Photo supplied by Karen DeBeer

Jane Fokkens, 84, has lived at Roberta Place for about two-and-a-half years. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 more than a week ago and has Alzheimer’s.

Fokkens’ daughter, Karen DeBeer, said her mother’s condition is stable but that she has extreme fatigue and is sleeping about 24 hours a day.

“She is (on the) ground floor, so we are actually able to see her through the window and converse on the phone,” DeBeer said.

“We are believers, and my mom and dad are, too. We just realize that there’s certain things that are in your control, and there’s other things that are not in your control.”

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At this point, DeBeer said all her family can do is pray, watch and wait.

“I think the real concern is nobody really knows with this variant, other than the fact that it seems to be moving the contagion very quickly.”

DeBeer said her family has been “very happy” with the care her mother has received at Roberta Place.

“There’s a lot of finger-pointing and blaming going on right now,” she said. “What we would have loved to see was all levels of government working together instead of slinging stones.”

*Families of residents and staff at Roberta Place can reach out to GlobalBarrie@globalnews.ca if they want their loved ones to be featured in this story.

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