Concerns raised over lack of information around nursing home COVID-19 outbreaks

The government will release more information about the COVID-19 outbreaks if it determines there's a public interest in doing so, a Department of Health spokesperson has said. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
The government will release more information about the COVID-19 outbreaks if it determines there's a public interest in doing so, a Department of Health spokesperson has said. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

A seniors advocate and the opposition health critic are calling on the Higgs government to be more transparent about COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and other long-term care settings.

They contend it's important for the public to be kept informed about vulnerable citizens to ensure they are safe, and about COVID activity in New Brunswick so they know what steps to take to protect themselves.

They question whether the government is attempting to downplay COVID in the province, despite warnings about an anticipated surge this fall and winter.

At least 12 nursing homes and 16 congregate living facilities, such as retirement residences, special care homes and shelters, are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, the Department of Health confirmed to CBC News earlier this week.

But the department refused to release any other information, including the total number of cases, the breakdown of infected residents and staff, how many hospitalizations, intensive care admissions or deaths have resulted, if any, or the vaccination rates at the homes, citing privacy.

The only thing spokesperson Adam Bowie would say is that an outbreak may be declared if at least two confirmed cases have been identified within 10 days.

'Doesn't sit well'

Cecile Cassista, executive director of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents' Rights, is "utterly shocked."

"I just think that it's outrageous for the government to take this direction to not be making the public aware of what's going on," she said.

"I mean, these are our aging population in there. They need to be protected. And it seems to me that there's some sort of a hidden agenda, if you will. And it doesn't sit well with me at all."

It's "unacceptable," said Cassista, who was invested with the Order of New Brunswick earlier this week in part for her "outstanding commitment to advocacy on behalf of the province's seniors, so they can live with greater respect and dignity."

Submitted by Cecile Cassista
Submitted by Cecile Cassista

She wrote to Premier Blaine Higgs, the ministers of Health and Social Development, and other government officials Saturday to voice her concerns.

"The public needs to know, family needs to know, and for them actually to not disclose tells me that they're hiding something."

By not being transparent, it leads the public to think "there's something suspicious going on," she said.

Cassista noted health officials are expecting a "nasty" surge of COVID and flu activity in the coming months.

"The more information that people know, the more precautions they will take," she said.

"It's not over with. It's far from over with."

'Many questions outstanding'

Opposition Leader Rob McKee, who is the health critic for the Liberals and the MLA for Moncton Centre, also contends the government needs to do a better job of keeping the public informed and updated about COVID, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable members of society, such as nursing home residents.

He's concerned Public Health "seems to have gone quiet" on COVID-19 in recent weeks, he said.

Although the government still provides weekly COVID-19 statistics through the COVIDWatch reports, Public Health hasn't held any public briefings for some time, McKee pointed out.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

"There are so many questions outstanding … like, if there's a next wave that's coming, any information about variants, or the like.

"I think it'd be important to get that information out to the public so the public can make informed decisions about, you know, protecting themselves."

McKee said he realizes people are "learning to live with COVID," but he noted  the virus claimed the lives of seven more New Brunswickers in the past week, according to the COVIDWatch report.

The number of people newly admitted to the hospital because of COVID increased to 38 from 29, as of Saturday, and the number of people currently hospitalized because of the virus also increased to 43 from 33, including two who require intensive care, the province reported.

Meanwhile, the two regional health authorities say there are 167 people hospitalized either for or with COVID, as of Saturday — a nearly 23 per cent increase from a week ago. Nine of them are in intensive care.

"It just seems like this government wants to move on, put COVID-19 behind them," said McKee, "but … it's still alive out there and it's something that people should continue to be careful with."