A Hamilton woman is calling for more transparency and accountability from Shalom Village after her mother, a resident at the home, died from COVID-19.
Lainie Tessier, whose 81-year-old mother Marian James was a resident at the Westdale home, says there are problems in the facility’s handling of the outbreak, while senior leaders continue to tell family members and the public that everything is under control.
James was hospitalized in December and later tested positive for COVID-19. She died about two weeks later, one of the now 20 deaths from COVID-19 in the home’s ongoing outbreak.
Tessier says her mother had been sick for more than a week before the facility noticed something was wrong — and only after her family alerted staff.
Shalom Village is Hamilton’s second-largest outbreak after Grace Villa on the east Mountain. On Friday, the city reported 185 cases, including 101 resident, 79 staff and five visitor cases since the outbreak began Dec. 9. The deaths also dropped to 17 from 19 the day before.
The facility, however, was reporting 20 deaths and 185 cases in an update late Wednesday. Of the cases, the breakdown is as follows: 78 staff, 100 residents, four essential caregivers and three “individuals” in hospital.
(Tracking the COVID-19 deaths at Shalom has been difficult. The home previously reported its 20th death on Jan. 3, however, the home dropped its count to 17 the following day, saying some of the previous deaths were not from COVID-19. The home then reported two more deaths on Jan. 5, and said 20 people had died from COVID-19 by Jan. 6. On Jan. 8, they revised their death toll to 19.)
Shalom’s self-reported death toll would mean the home has officially surpassed Ancaster’s Chartwell Willowgrove to become not just the city’s second-biggest outbreak, but also the second-deadliest.
Tessier says her mother had been sick since Dec. 7 and was taking medication for an underlying health condition. The home’s outbreak was declared two days later.
By Dec. 13, her symptoms were only getting worse. James had a cough, difficulty speaking — seemingly from a lack of oxygen — and had mostly been sleeping for a week.
That day, based on her symptoms, Tessier phoned Shalom Village and left a message at the front desk advising their staff to wear PPE when going into her mother’s room.
The next day, on Dec. 14, James was tested for COVID-19 as part of broader testing in the home, Tessier says. James told Tessier that residents now had to wear a mask when staff were in their rooms. This was several days after the outbreak had begun.
Shalom Village did not respond to or comment on a list of Tessier’s specific concerns sent by The Spectator through email.
“I’m afraid that I am unable to address anything that deals with resident specific inquiries,” said Laurie Pringle, communications director of Shalom Village Foundation.
Later on Dec. 14, Shalom Village held a town hall. In it, Tessier says the home’s outgoing CEO, Larry Levin, advised family members not to call staff. Shalom Village did not confirm or deny what Levin said in the town hall.
The next evening, on Dec. 15, Tessier spoke to her mom again. James — who lived in a seniors’ apartment on the fourth floor of Shalom’s original building — was still sick and her medication had run out. Tessier worried that either her mom had COVID-19 or needed more medication.
Tessier advised her mother to call staff for help. But she says James was “nervous” and asked Tessier to do it instead.
Tessier didn’t want to call staff after listening to the town hall, so she asked her ex-husband, who is James’ power of attorney, to do it. When he did, staff said they were calling an ambulance because James was weak, hadn’t eaten and wasn’t breathing well.
James was given oxygen and was tested again at the hospital, as her previous COVID-19 test result hadn’t come back yet. She tested positive and was moved into the COVID ward the next day. She remained in hospital until her death on Dec. 28.
Tessier is concerned about the delay it took to notice something was wrong and for staff to don the appropriate PPE, saying that this could have further contributed to the spread of the virus.
“My mother was clearly very sick for well over a week,” she said, although she doesn’t blame staff working on the ground, saying they’re overworked and “there’s no bandwidth left for them to notice.”
She also believes the home left “multiple vectors for transmission open.”
Tessier says a couple hours before going to the hospital, James told her that staff said they were going to officially start wearing PPE in her room because of her cough. That was two days after Tessier’s warning voicemail.
While Shalom Village has been providing information on its outbreak publicly and holding weekly town halls, Tessier said the home’s leadership has not provided transparent answers during those calls and that they’re “gaslighting” by normalizing the situation.
She pointed specifically to how Levin pointed to other outbreaks or community transmission when he was asked about how the virus got into Shalom Village.
“The COVID numbers in our community have gone up astronomically,” Levin said on Dec. 21. “When the numbers in the community are so high, it’s understandable that more people are going to become infected with it and there’s an increasing chance it’s going to be brought into our home, as it has in Shalom Village.”
Tessier doesn’t accept that answer.
“That’s pointing to another symptom. That’s not the cause. The cause is a lack of contact testing, tracing and isolation, and particularly, not having enough staff,” she said. “There are lots of homes that have no issues.”
She says a lack of transparency makes it hard for anyone on the outside to assess if homes are actually doing their job. She would like the home to say what they have done to address the outbreak with specifics, including current staffing ratios.
In Shalom’s email response, Pringle invited Tessier to contact her directly.
“If a family member has concerns, we do encourage them to contact me,” Pringle said. “I will either get them the correct answers, or connect them to a senior leader (or our CEO) who will be able to take action where appropriate and provide information relating to any questions, or concerns they may have.”
Tessier called the facility’s response “disappointing.”
“A boilerplate email response ... reinforces the perception of lack of transparency and accountability,” she said.
She says she didn’t contact the home directly because she was “saddened” by the responses given by Levin, the home’s former CEO, to questions from other family members at town halls.
“I was like, ‘OK, they’re not going to be accountable.’ And I’m not going to expose myself to more of that,” she said. “There’s a lot of gaslighting and that does not engender confidence.”
Tessier says the situation should be treated more like the crisis that it is.
“The consequences are so high,” she says. “People are suffering and dying.”
Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator