Ontario long-term care minister defends COVID-19 response despite outbreaks and deaths

OTTAWA — Ontario’s Minister of Long-term Care, Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, is defending the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as outbreaks in long-term care homes continue to mount.

Speaking on CTV Morning Live in Ottawa Thursday morning, the Kanata-Carleton MPP said there are presently outbreaks at 37 long-term care homes in Ontario. An outbreak, for the purposes of COVID-19 response, is declared when one case in either a staff member or a resident is identified.

“As soon as that happens, public health is actioned and outbreak measures are taken, but that 37 number represents about five per cent of all our long-term care homes,” Fullerton said. “I want to stress that we are at the beginning of this. Ninety-five per cent of our homes do not have an outbreak.”

The Ontario government enacted new measures on March 23 to give long-term care homes greater flexibility in assigning and deploying staff. Directives restricting residents from leaving the home for short visits with family and friends were also put in place. Earlier in March, visitor access to long-term care homes, retirement homes, supportive housing and hospices was also severely restricted.

Fullerton said the measures are meant to keep residents and staff at these homes safe, but the growing number of cases in long-term care homes is a result of community spread.

“This is an absolute tragedy in places like Bobcaygeon, so we have to absolutely act as soon as we understand that there’s a case,” she said, “But the original effort was to keep COVID-19 out. Our long-term care home residents have not traveled. This is coming in from the community.”

Seventeen people have died in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, after COVID-19 struck a nursing home.

In Ottawa, two residents of a retirement home in Orléans have died from COVID-19.

Fullerton said essential visitors are being allowed into homes in certain circumstances, but it’s on a home-by-home basis.

The change in directive from the Province also allows temporary and volunteer staff to enter long-term care homes, to supplement fulltime professional staffing levels.

The order gives long-term care homes the power to employ extra part-time or temporary staff or contractors and use volunteers to perform work, including to perform bargaining unit work.

Fullerton said that was a necessary measure to ensure each home maintains its level of care.

“We’ve seen homes where large numbers of staff start having to self-isolate, so these measures were put in place to make sure our homes were able to provide the proper staffing for our long-term care home residents,” she said. “These measures were put in place so our system can be agile.”

Fullerton also maintained “very few” of Ontario’s long-term care homes have critical shortages of staff or personal protective equipment, but she did not provide a figure.

“This is being worked on with regional tables to make sure any shortages or pending shortages are immediately addressed,” she said.

The executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition advocacy group, Nathalie Mehra, told CTV Morning Live on Wednesday, families might want to consider removing their loved ones from long-term care. Fullerton advised against that.

“In a long-term care home, there is ability to have medical staff; there are trained people. Once you take a loved one home, we can’t take them back because of the risk of transmission from the community,” she said. 

Fullerton would not directly say whether there should be a public inquiry into Ontario’s handling of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, but said the province should learn all it can from this pandemic.

“I think we have to look into and learn from everything. We learned from H1N1 and we learned from SARS; this is above and beyond any of those things,” she said. “A focus has to put on these to see what else could have been done and what more can be done.”

She repeated the message to avoid non-essential travel outside the home, to wash your hands, and to practice physical distancing.