Field visits by phone, locked PPE reported by nursing home staff in wave 1, documents show

When the wave of COVID-19 cases began to hit long-term care homes in the spring of 2020, nursing home workers called the Ontario Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development to to speak out about unsafe working conditions, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

In response, the ministry, responsible for keeping workers safe in the province, advised its inspectors to conduct field visits by phone, even as epidemics in long-term care facilities escalated.

“I feel like they let us down,” said an employee at a nursing home run by Revera, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“If they could actually have come in and see the environment we were working in and see how people were suffering, they would have seen the health and safety deficiencies that were occurring.”

Through an access to information request, CBC News obtained from the ministry the health and safety reports of nine long-term care homes in eastern Ontario, covering the period from March to November 2020.

Many documents – including reports from some of the region’s hardest-hit households – contain hundreds of blackened pages.

But emails, reports and handwritten notes still illustrate key issues in several homes at the onset of the pandemic, including complaints about a lack of proper protective equipment (PPE), poor communication with staff, fear of retaliation for speaking out about staff issues and concerns. shortages.

In the past year and a half, nearly 1,000 nursing home workers in Ottawa alone have tested positive for COVID-19. Some were among those hospitalized. Some never returned to work. Three workers in the area have died.

“Very dangerous” situation

In reports from Stoneridge Manor in Carleton Place, Ont., Which experienced its first outbreak in early April 2020, a nurse wrote to the ministry on April 6, worrying about the “lack of appropriate measures and procedures for responding to COVID ”.

A resident had already died and staff members were falling ill.

The nurse called the situation “very dangerous” and asked the ministry to question “all registered nurses on site … by going to the workplace”. Records show that a field visit was made by telephone two days later, on April 8.

During the pandemic, 53 residents of the 60-bed facility tested positive for COVID-19 and six died. Thirty workers tested positive and several were very ill.

Protesters attend an Ontario Health Coalition rally in Ottawa on October 4, calling on the government to fix the struggling long-term care system. (Jean Delisle / CBC)

3 170 field visits

Asked by CBC about the lack of site visits at the start of the pandemic, the Ontario Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development said in a statement that its inspectors “have made more than 3,170 visits to the long-term COVID-19 pitch. care sector, issuing more than 1,100 orders “since March 2020.

Regarding “field visits” by telephone, the ministry said: “On March 16, 2020, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the ministry suspended most in-person field visits to homes. long-term care as information on the pandemic evolved. ”

CBC also asked Revera about the concerns outlined in the documents regarding the company’s homes in eastern Ontario. A company spokesperson declined to comment.

“There are ongoing lawsuits involving Revera long-term care homes in Ontario. As such, out of respect for the courts and the judicial process, it would not be appropriate for Revera to comment, ”the spokesperson said in a statement.

“Enclosed” PPE

Workers at several homes, including Stoneridge, complained about the lack of access to PPE, including high-quality N95 masks.

At Carlingview Manor in Ottawa, reports also say workers wore garbage bags instead of overalls.

A handwritten note from a Department of Labor health and safety inspector examining the problems at the Carlingview Manor long-term care home in Ottawa in 2020. He notes that “the fear is unbelievable” and that some members of the staff wear “garbage bags” rather than medical gowns. (SRC)

“They ended up locking all the masks so the nurses didn’t have access to them,” said a worker at another Revera household, referring to the N95 respirators.

Instead, she said, nurses and personal support workers (PSWs) were given surgical masks for an entire shift.

“We had to use these same masks to see each patient. So whether we were in a COVID-positive room or not, we always wore the same mask. ”

Staff death at Madonna

At Madonna Care Community in Orleans, Ont., Two employees died after contracting COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.

“One died within a week of being tested. We all collapsed and cried,” said a care home worker, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“We had equipment, but we weren’t given it… We didn’t have the necessary personnel. We still don’t have the staff.

The documents show that an anonymous complaint was filed with the Ministry of Labor on April 15, 2020, warning that Madonna “was not taking the necessary precautions and practices to protect workers from contracting COVID-19.”

The complaint said there was a lack of proper PPE, including N95 masks that were locked, and a lack of contact tracing and monitoring.

Twelve days later, on April 27, a ministry inspector made a site visit by telephone. Meanwhile, a member of Madonna’s staff died on April 21. Another worker died in May.

No death reports or details of staff fatalities are included in Ministry of Labor documents; 40 of the 93 pages for Madonna Care Community have been blacked out.

“No sense of urgency”

“There was no real sense of urgency or understanding or acceptance of the gravity of the situation. And in Madonna’s case, you know, it turned out to be fatal – not just for the workers, but for… many residents as well, ”said Candace Rennick, a former PSW and CUPE Ontario executive, who represents some of the long-term care workers affected.

“The phone inquiries, the delays – all of that proves what people are feeling, that the system has not had its back.”

Candace Rennick is the secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario. She says the Ministry of Labor showed “no sense of urgency” at the start of the pandemic, when workers reported inside long-term care homes across Ontario. (SRC)

Asked about access to PPE and staff shortages, Madonna’s parent company Sienna Living said: “During the first wave of the pandemic, there was a global shortage of personal protective equipment.”

The company noted that staffing continues to be a challenge as “many frontline workers have chosen to leave the field.”

“We have a strong focus on recruiting front-line vendors in this highly competitive space by providing full-time hours, continuing education, and continuing education,” the company said.

Staff remains a problem

With most residents of long-term care homes and many workers now fully immunized, the number of nursing home cases and outbreaks in Ontario has declined dramatically.

Yet workers tell CBC they are still sorely understaffed and many continue to work long shifts with few breaks. Even before the pandemic, field turnover was high due to difficult working conditions and low wages.

The health and safety of long-term care workers continues to be a concern, according to Fiona Bailey of the Service Employees International Union, which also represents long-term care workers.

Long-term care workers always need better pay and benefits, advocates say

Long-term care advocates say more needs to be done to attract workers to the field, including increasing wages and providing better benefits. Betty Yakimenko, president of the Madonna Community Care family council, and Fiona Bailey, a former long-term care worker, spoke to CBC News. 1:34

For 15 years, she worked in housekeeping and as a personal support worker in a long-term care home. Bailey said it’s important work that requires compassion and empathy – and more than a few weeks of training.

“They sit at the bedside of some of these residents [as] they take their last breath. And that’s what scares me is that if we don’t improve, if the government does nothing, all this staff will be gone. “

On Wednesday, Ontario announced it is setting aside up to $ 270 million to hire more than 4,000 long-term care workers by the end of the fiscal year.

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