An auxiliary nurse who worked at the Herron nursing home at the height of the COVID-19 crisis painted a disturbing picture on Tuesday of a woefully understaffed facility where residents were left without enough food and water and it was unclear who was in charge.
The worker, whose name is under a publication ban, recounted troubling details of her experience in the first week of April 2020. She described the situation as "chaos."
She said neither the owner of the privately operated home, the Katasa Group, nor the West Island health authority, which had been aware of the crisis at the home since at least March 29, did enough to address the situation.
A total of 31 people had died at Herron by April 11.
"I really and truly thought that whoever was in charge, I had the impression that they were blaming the virus, because it would be easier to blame the virus than to acknowledge the hard truth that these people suffered malnourishment and dehydration," the witness said at the coroner's inquiry, which is examining the situation at Herron during the first wave.
"I felt it was a way to escape culpability."
One resident, left unchanged, had slipped and was found lying in his own excrement. Another, who suffered from Alzheimer's, was left for a day in the same room as his dead spouse, and he had to repeatedly be told she had died.
The witness said the weekend of April 4 was the worst at Herron and the problems dragged on through the next week.
"I felt anger that we were told that everything was under control, and yet people were still dropping like flies," she said in her emotional testimony, which began Monday afternoon and continued through Tuesday.
Other front-line staff at Herron during the height of the first wave recounted their distress and the impact of a lack of staff, testifying in tears.
Some ended up with COVID-19 themselves and one spent a week in hospital.
Another told the inquest how she washed and changed a deceased resident to give him some dignity. Another recounted that she had never in her lengthy career seen so many residents soiled.
One witness said "the bell didn't stop ringing'' and she didn't know where to turn. Employees were overwhelmed as many colleagues had left the job, either sick or in isolation because they'd come into contact with a positive case. Others were simply scared.
Staff testified that masks were lacking and they said they were required to wear a single mask during an entire shift.
Quebec coroner Géhane Kamel assured health workers they were not at fault and deserve respect for the working conditions they endured.
"Rest assured that the coroner's office doesn't lay blame on health-care workers,'' Kamel said. "And each individual who went to work, whether in a CHSLD or at the hospital, has nothing but thanks and respect from us.''
Kamel's mandate is to investigate the deaths at six long-term care homes, including Herron, and one seniors' residence, during the pandemic's first wave.
In the case of Herron, Quebec prosecutors announced in August they would not lay charges against the owners of the home.
Kamel said at the outset of the inquiry last week that her aim is to determine how similar situations could be prevented in future.