A key watchdog is launching an investigation into how Premier Doug Ford’s government handled the tragic situation in Ontario nursing homes, where almost 1,700 residents have died from COVID-19 despite promises of an “iron ring” of protection from the virus.
Provincial ombudsman Paul Dube said his move follows a military report that detailed horrific conditions at five homes to which it sent medical teams, including accounts of patients being fed forcefully to the point of choking and left for days in soiled diapers, crying for help.
“The Canadian Armed Forces report painted a stunning portrait of the situation in long-term care during this crisis,” Dube added in a statement Monday as Ontario topped 30,000 cases of COVID-19 with 2,336 deaths.
“Our investigation will look at the systemic issues that led to it, and will make constructive recommendations for corrective action,” he said, citing “grave concerns” about the situation in long-term care.
“Never has it been more important to ensure that these systems are working as they should,” the ombudsman added, noting the independence of his office from government.
Ford said he welcomes the investigation and opposition parties applauded it, saying the probe could shed more light on what went wrong than an “independent commission” the premier promised will begin next month.
“I need answers. I want answers,” Ford told his daily news conference. “We need to get this fixed.”
Rivals said they have little faith in Ford’s commission, for which no leader has been named nor terms of reference \released.
“I remain worried that a government-controlled commission will not be transparent, could downplay the government’s contributions to the crisis and will not have a broad scope of investigation,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.
New Democrats repeated their call for a full public judicial inquiry.
“That’s the only way we’ll spark the overhaul that’s needed,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “The risks at the outset were obvious to many in Ontario’s threadbare and rarely inspected homes.”
Critics say the government overprepared for COVID-19 in hospitals and underprepared in long-term care, where group living in close quarters left residents highly susceptible, and that the government waited too long to stop staff from working in more than one home.
Investigators from the ombudsman’s office will review Ontario’s standards and policies for nursing homes “as well as the adequacy of oversight mechanisms to ensure compliance.”
The probe will look at how complaints were handled, inspections by the Ministry of Long-Term Care and its staff, emergency planning, steps taken to support nursing homes during the pandemic, collection of data on COVID-19 cases, rates of infection and death and communication by nursing homes with residents, staff and the public.
Ford has acknowledged the long-term-care system is “broken” and last week accused the government’s own inspectors of refusing to do in-person inspections at the height of the pandemic in April — a charge the Ontario Public Service Employees Union denied, saying that decision was made by managers.
The premier attempted to mend fences Monday, telling inspectors infuriated by his remarks that “I know we had a little bump there … I appreciate everything you do.”
Troubles continue at a number of Ontario nursing homes.
The latest facility to be hard-hit is Woodbridge Vista Care Community, which Ford is under pressure to take over under emergency powers after administrators sent 18 patients to hospital with COVID-19 on the weekend.
This is why the province should not be keeping secret its list of “code red” nursing homes, with the biggest problems handling the highly contagious virus, Horwath said.
“Ford said Ontarians deserve to know what he knows,” Horwath said in a statement.
“He knows this home has a massive outbreak of COVID-19. Ontario must take over its management immediately to ensure seniors are getting the same care the private operator is failing to provide.”
The nursing home sent 18 residents to several hospitals on Saturday night. It is owned by Sienna Senior Living, which also owns Altamont Community Care in Scarborough and Camilla Care Community in Mississauga, which were both taken over temporarily by the province last week. There are now seven homes under government control. Altamont was a subject of the scathing military report.
Woodbridge Vista Care has 224 beds, with 65 residents sick from COVID-19, 17 dead from it and 20 staff infected, according to an Ontario government tally.
“Long-term care can manage to a certain extent, but when you get many people sick with COVID-19 symptoms you want to do everything possible,” said Sienna vice-president Joanne Dykeman.
The number of nursing homes with outbreaks of COVID-19 has declined to 112. A total of 306 have had outbreaks, 184 of which have been resolved, according to Ontario government figures released Monday morning.
There are still 1,154 nursing home residents and 978 staff members with active cases of the novel coronavirus, both slight declines from the previous day. Seven workers have died. At least 5,097 residents of nursing homes have tested positive for COVID-19.
The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 has also been declining and is down to 781, with 125 in intensive care and 89 of them on ventilators.
Labs across the province processed 14,379 tests Sunday, with another 6,427 people awaiting results.
More than 66 per cent of cases have been in the GTA, where the majority of new infections are still taking place. About three-quarters of the new cases announced by the government Monday were in Toronto and Peel.
As of Monday at 5 p.m., Ontario had 30,044 cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in late January with 2,336 deaths, according to a Star compilation of data from health units in the previous 24 hours. There were 458 new and probable cases of the virus with an increase of eight deaths.
Across Canada, there have been 91,351 cases and 7,305 deaths.