Nova Scotia's Department of Health has sent letters to nursing homes across the province imploring them to fill almost all of the beds they have kept empty throughout the first wave of COVID-19 infections.
The letters, including one from Deputy Minister Dr. Kevin Orrell sent last week, informed nursing home administrators that they would no longer be allowed to keep more than three per cent of their beds empty.
Beds that remained unfilled over that limit would no longer receive the province's per-day funding rate.
There are 133 licensed long-term care facilities in Nova Scotia with a total of about about 8,000 beds.
According to Health Department spokesperson Marla MacInnis, there are currently 447 vacant long-term care beds across the province.
"While the department supported facilities in maintaining some vacancies during the first wave of the pandemic, we have told facilities to fill vacancies to help ensure those Nova Scotians who require care have access to it," wrote MacInnis in an email to CBC News.
Health Minister Randy Delorey was not available to answer questions about the ultimatum Wednesday.
368 people in hospital waiting for placement
The deputy minister's directive was sent prior to the release of recommendations from two government reports which examined COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities, most notably Northwood in Halifax, where 53 residents died as a result of infections.
The department is under pressure from hospitals to free up beds in their facilities that are now being used by people who no longer need hospital care but cannot be sent home.
According to Carla Adams, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, "as of September 16th [there were] 368 people waiting in hospital" for placement in a long-term care facility.
Michele Lowe, managing director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, understands the situation is not acceptable for those waiting in hospital, but she said the 76 nursing homes her organization represents are trying to manage the best they can and keep their residents safe.
"When we talk about keeping beds empty, we're only talking maybe two or three vacant beds within their facility and they're keeping them empty so that they then can protect the resident in the event that they may start to show signs of illness and they have to be swabbed for COVID," said Lowe during a phone interview Wednesday.
"[The homes] have to isolate that particular resident until the swab has been submitted to public health and the results have been returned back to the facility," she said. "It's a protocol that we've had in place and that continues to protect the rest of the residents from any possible positive test."
Lowe said those who manage long-term care facilities are under intense pressure to keep the virus out of their homes and they're unsure what help may be available from the province in the event of an outbreak.
She said that was why they were keeping beds empty.
"Without actually having that additional space available for them to be able to isolate residents, it's the potential of what could happen," said Lowe. "That spread could happen just the same as it happened in Northwood."
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