With hundreds of Ontario long-term care residents dead and COVID-19 outbreaks continuing to ravage facilities across the province, a group of health experts is pushing the province to abolish for-profit long-term care facilities.
“When you think about for-profit homes, they’re by design created to have one thing in mind and that’s profits for shareholders. It’s not care for our seniors,” Dr. Naheed Dosani, said Tuesday on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.
“This is a humanitarian crisis.”
Dosani, a palliative care physician for the William Osler Health System, which has hospitals in Brampton and Etobicoke, is one of more than 215 Ontario doctors and researchers who have joined the Doctors for Justice in Long-Term Care campaign.
Despite repeated assertions from Premier Doug Ford, Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton and other provincial officials that Ontario was building an “iron ring” around its long-term care facilities to protect residents from a second wave of the virus, deaths have continued to mount.
Out of more than 5,900 COVID-19-related deaths in the province, more than 3,400 were in long-term care, according to provincial statistics.
44 resident deaths at one facility
Most recent is the outbreak at Roberta Place Long Term Care Home in Barrie, Ont., where almost every single resident has contracted COVID-19. Genome sequencing has also confirmed that a highly transmissible variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom has been found at the home, according to the local public health unit.
The facility was reporting 44 resident deaths as of Monday.
After a lull in cases in the summer, Dosani said long-term care homes are still seeing poor infection-control practices and a delayed response to outbreaks.
He also referenced this report from Ontario’s COVID-19 Advisory Table, which found that in the first wave of the pandemic, the province saw 78 per cent more deaths in people with COVID-19 in for-profit homes than in their public counterparts.
“It’s not a fluke,” Dosani said. “This system was actually built this way. It’s built to put profits over people.”
In response to the group’s demands, Fullerton told CBC News in a statement that the province has been working “around the clock” since the pandemic started to protect the most vulnerable populations — while noting there have been “unprecedented challenges” along the way.
“For example, our government built a testing system from scratch, secured PPE [personal protective equipment] from regions across the globe and flowed over a billion dollars to shore up the sector,” she said. “We absolutely have applied lessons learned from the first wave to inform our current response.”
Fullerton said the current number of cases and outbreaks remain her “top concern” and that she is confident that measures such as testing, masking, pandemic pay and partnerships with hospitals are “stabilizing the sector.”
She also said the province has moved up the target date for vaccinations for all long-term care residents to Feb. 5, which is 10 days earlier than originally scheduled.
“Vaccinations of all long-term care homes are a light at the end of tunnel,” Fullerton said in the statement.
Doctors call for appropriate staffing in LTC
The group of doctors is also calling on the province to take the following measures with respect to long-term care:
- hire appropriate levels of staff
- set a minimum pay standard for front-line workers
- ensure at least 70 per cent of staff at every facility are working full time
- let family caregivers have access to facilities
- work with hospitals to establish partnerships for care
“Until we actually delve deeper at the roots — the systemic underpinnings of what is causing this crisis in long-term care — we will not develop that iron ring,” Dosani said. “The solutions and conversations thus far have been way too superficial, and have been band-aid approaches.”
Horwath backs campaign
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath backed the group’s campaign.
“I’m grateful to these doctors and researchers for coming together to advocate for seniors,” she said in a statement. “Long-term care residents and their loved ones have endured agony, incredible sorrow, and tragic loss during this pandemic.
Ford has “protected for-profit corporations — allowing them to put their bottom line ahead of the care and quality of life of seniors,” Horwath said in the statement.
“It’s time for an overhaul to stop the terrible living conditions and preventable deaths.”
An independent commission — Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission — has been looking into how the province handled the deadly spread of COVID-19 in long-term care homes and has flagged a lack of provincial oversight and uneven management standards.
The commission’s interim report on the situation late last year pointed to a provincial decision in the fall of 2018 to end comprehensive inspections and a lack of enforcement when issues are found. It also found that fines and prosecutions are rarely applied to home operators, leaving a lack of urgency to address violations.
Earlier this month, the commission told the province it needed more time to finish its final report because the government itself wasn’t providing enough documentation.
The Ontario government rejected the extension request.