A Grace Villa worker says she and other coworkers haven’t returned to work because of mental-health issues after witnessing death and devastation in the city’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Tammy Reed said she’s been diagnosed with PTSD after the tragic outbreak at the east Mountain long-term-care home, which she described as “a runaway train” that resulted in the deaths of 44 residents.
“This has really brought me to my knees,” she said. “I don’t sleep at night.”
Reed shared her experience as Hamilton Mountain MPP Monique Taylor discussed a private member’s bill she is tabling at Queen’s Park that would provide essential workers easier access to mental-health benefits through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Taylor says the legislation, which will be debated next month, was inspired by Grace Villa’s workers.
The outbreak led to 234 infections, including 144 resident cases from Nov. 25 to Jan. 19. Staff also fell sick, with 88 catching COVID-19. Some of her colleagues were hospitalized in the ICU and on oxygen, Reed said.
After the outbreak was over, Taylor released a series of letters from Grace Villa staff revealing “war zone”-like conditions inside. Low staff levels left residents without proper care or sanitary conditions, the letters said, describing patients on soiled mattresses, the facility littered with trash, and deaths from dehydration.
It’s been two months since Reed has been to work and she knows “numerous” others who are struggling, though she didn’t know exactly how many have not returned to Grace Villa.
“We now have staff that fell sick and have tried to go back and have fallen flat on their face,” Reed said. “They can’t do it. They’ve locked in the anxiety, the panic and the fear.”
Reed added that because of COVID-19 precautions, staff had to work beyond their duties to respond to the crisis.
“There was nobody allowed in so there was a cart and we would have to prepare our residents’ bodies to go out,” she said in an emotional statement. “They had to be wrapped up in plastic bags ... It was very hard for us as staff.”
Reed described hearing about a new death every day, until one day there wasn’t.
“We thought, ‘My God, maybe there’s hope’ ... only to absolutely be crushed the next day because we had four deaths.”
“We broke that day as a team,” Reed said, noting staff had dwindled by that point. “We all hung our heads and we just cried ... There was a sense of hopelessness.”
Reed’s statements came just days after a survey from the Ontario Nurses’ Association found about 61 per cent of nurses working in large outbreaks in long-term care reported experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said, initially, no help for mental health was offered. When conditions got “very bad” close to the outbreak’s end, she received a list of phone numbers to call for pro bono support. Reed also received help from her doctor.
She mentioned there’s limited support for the “absolutely traumatic experience” she and her colleagues faced.
“You don’t get to process it. You’re living it, then you’re sick, then you’re back,” she said.
After asking late Tuesday afternoon about supports provided for staff, The Spectator had not received a response by deadline from Mary Raithby, CEO of Grace Villa operator APANS Health Services.
“The fourth wave of this pandemic is going to be mental health,” said Taylor, the NDP critic for mental health and addiction. “We need to ensure that ... workers have access to real services.”
Currently, workers have to prove their mental stress was caused by their employment to receive WSIB benefits. Taylor’s bill proposes to amend the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act to presume that chronic and traumatic stress experienced by essential workers during the pandemic arose from their jobs.
“They’ve served us all with courage and extraordinary dedication, and they deserve our support now and into the future,” Taylor said in a release.
Reed said she felt “fear and shame” and “embarrassment” to talk about her experiences because it seemed like she was alone.
“Once I said I was struggling, I’ve had people reach out to me that have said they’re struggling and they’re not (at Grace Villa),” she said.
“We need to be healthy to go in and look after these people.”
Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator