What we are seeing in Ontario’s long-term care (LTC) system is heart-breaking. COVID-19 has exploited weaknesses that were established decades ago.
Since the Mike Harris government came to power in 1995, governments in Ontario have given for-profit operators a larger and larger role in LTC. Today, they represent 58 per cent of facilities in Ontario’s LTC sector.
The consequences of that shift are clear: to maximize profit, most owners run facilities with part-time staff, often at minimum wage. They contract out cleaning and food preparation to companies who do the same.
Care staff are given impossible workloads, leaving them unable to give residents the hands-on care they need. Residents languish in soiled diapers, or go without showers for days on end. Staff are burned out from the trauma of watching people suffer, and are frequently injured themselves. Many leave the profession.
Essential care workers become disposable people. Seniors and people with disabilities are hurt, often despite the best efforts of staff. These are the conditions COVID-19 has exploited.
The photo on the left is of Peter Collins. He moved to Carlingview Manor (a for-profit LTC home run by Revera) on April 1, 2020 after spending two months at the Civic Hospital.
Peter is 68 and lives with dementia. Soon after he moved to Carlingview Manor, his sister Christine was alarmed by several things.
It was impossible to reach staff caring for her brother. She had given him a cell phone, and was stunned by his daily updates.
Residents were using common areas without any social distancing. A non-verbal resident would wander into Peter’s room constantly looking to steal things. Christine was told there was nothing staff could do given workload issues, and that she “shouldn’t worry.”
But on April 22, a resident who tested positive for COVID-19 was taken to hospital. The next day, residents were told to stay in their rooms (a useless order that was impossible to enforce without appropriate levels of staff).
On April 26, 2020, Peter tested positive for COVID-19. Christine was told the next day, and she urged staff to ensure he takes his puffer medication every six hours. From what she can tell, that isn’t happening.
Meanwhile, Carlingview Manor has seen a massive outbreak of COVID-19. The facility has 303 beds, and 137 residents have tested positive along with 73 staff. 36 residents have died, and Christine is terrified for her brother’s safety.
This is well beyond unacceptable, it is catastrophic, and it continues elsewhere. Yesterday, Ontario lost its third worker at a for-profit LTC home in Orleans. And yet, there have been no deaths at Ottawa’s four public nursing homes, and COVID-19 outbreaks are contained.
If for-profit care homes are unable to protect staff and residents, they must be immediately taken over by the province, and run by public health officials. These officials must ensure that residents and staff are protected, and that staff are fairly compensated for their work.
It’s time for a reckoning in LTC. The issues that are being so tragically exposed by COVID-19 are not new, they have festered for years despite the pleas of advocates for governments to act. We can never return to normal, where normal meant understaffing, poor pay and inadequate inspections.
Let this pandemic be the moment where we say enough is enough, we will no longer tolerate an LTC system that compromises the safety and dignity of our elders who built this province. We will no longer tolerate a system that devalues and degrades staff who look after the residents. After COVID-19 let’s end for-profit care, as called for by Andrea Horwath and my colleagues in the Ontario NDP, and ensure that meeting human needs is always the first priority.