MONTREAL — The former owners of a long-term care home where dozens of people died of COVID-19 early in the pandemic refused to fully co-operate with the local health authorities and threatened not to pay workers who came to the residence at the government’s request, a Quebec coroner’s inquest heard Tuesday.
Lynne McVey, the head of the regional health authority for western Montreal, testified that the situation culminated in her calling police early on April 11, 2020 after learning that 31 people had died at Résidence Herron since mid-March -- not the 13 listed in official government reports.
"The worry that I had at that moment was, 'What don’t we know? What other information don’t we know in this situation that we’re going to find out?' " McVey told the inquest.
McVey said that when three managers were sent to the private facility in the Montreal suburb of Dorval on the evening of March 29 they found only the owner, the owner's spouse and one staff member on the premises to care for over 130 residents.
"It was very worrying, and we had evidence in this private (long-term care home) there hadn’t been food given to patients since noon, they hadn’t been changed. The floor was sticky," she said.
She testified that the facility was put under trusteeship the following day due to the staffing shortages, but that the health authority struggled to obtain crucial information from the owners.
She said that in the days that followed, employees reported that Herron's owners called them and told them not to come to work. She said the owners also said they wouldn't pay workers from a staffing agency who reported to the home at the request of the health authority.
When asked why it took so long to call police, McVey said it took until April 10 to get keys to access all rooms in the building, as well as a full list of names and numbers of staff members, patients and their family members.
Forty-seven people died at Herron, and a report commissioned by the provincial government accused the owners of "organizational negligence'' that resulted in a failure to meet residents' needs as the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020.
Coroner Géhane Kamel is investigating pandemic deaths at seven Quebec seniors residences and long-term care homes, but the portion of the hearings addressing Herron was suspended earlier this year while prosecutors decided whether to lay charges against the former owners. The Quebec prosecutor's office announced last month that the evidence in the case did not meet the bar for criminal charges.
The testimony presented before Kamel on Tuesday painted a picture of confusion and miscommunication among health officials, who were initially unclear about who was responsible for what.
The head of Montreal's public health department defended having taken several days to issue an order for the health authority to assume control of Herron, saying she hadn't initially been told the owners weren't fully co-operating.
Dr. Mylène Drouin testified that she only became aware on April 7, 2020 that the owners still hadn't turned over residents' medical files.
"Then I understood the issues wasn’t only managing the outbreak, but also much more with human resources, administration," she said.
Drouin said she was first made aware of the situation unfolding at Herron on April 3, but she initially was led to believe that the situation was under control and the residents' needs were being met. She said she issued an official directive on April 7 after learning the extent of the issues at the home.
"We are therefore of the opinion that there is a real threat to the health of the residents of the private CHSLD Herron and there is an urgency to put in place the necessary measures to remedy this situation," it read.
McVey later testified she initially believed greater powers would come from the provincial Health Department, not Drouin's office. She also acknowledged there were issues with communication that may have caused confusion for Herron's owners but insisted that "the collaboration was not there."
In her opening remarks, coroner Géhane Kamel said it is not her job to determine criminal or civil responsibility but rather to "shed a light" on the 47 deaths that occurred in the home.
"The loss of a human life, when it’s understood the death could have been prevented, remains a tragedy for loved ones and society," she said. "But the deplorable, shocking conditions surrounding this loss are also elements that can and must be taken into account in the current inquiry and eventual recommendations."
The hearings into Herron will hear from dozens of witnesses and are scheduled to last until at least Sept. 19. Herron's former co-owner, Samantha Chowieri, is expected to testify later in the inquest.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept 7, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press