Long-term care minister dodges questions in 1st press conference since independent report

·4 min read
Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of long-term care, answers questions about the Auditor General’s report on her ministry’s response to the COVID19 pandemic in Toronto on April 28, 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of long-term care, answers questions about the Auditor General’s report on her ministry’s response to the COVID19 pandemic in Toronto on April 28, 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Days after a scathing report found that the long-term care sector was not prepared to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton dodged questions Monday from reporters and largely blamed previous governments, inadequate staffing, community spread and the deadliness of the virus for the crisis in the sector.

"We were overdue for a pandemic," she said at a 20-minute news conference.

"I look back and say why did it take so long, so many years went by, and without addressing long-term care when we knew there was an aging population? Our government is addressing it and taking responsibility ... after so many years of neglect by previous governments."

When asked if the province will apologize for the long-term care crisis and all of the residents who died, she said collectively as a society "we need to do soul searching" as to why it took a pandemic to address capacity and staffing issues.

The government's response to the crisis "takes time and it just wasn't a match for the speed of COVID-19. There are many lessons learned from wave one, wave two and there will be lessons learned from wave three."

Watch | CBC News asks Fullerton if she will apologize for deaths in long-term care:

Fullerton maintained she is now committed to fixing the problems in long-term care, but was scarce on details, answering questions from only three reporters before abruptly leaving.

The province has already begun implementing some of the commission's recommendations, such as boosting staffing of personal support workers, implementing stronger infection protection measures, increasing home capacity and investigating others areas, she said.

Fullerton suggested changes are coming later this week to "improve residents' quality of life and address their emotional wellbeing." The province is also going to "move forward" to improve home inspections.

Dr. Samir Sinha, a geriatric specialist in Ontario, told CBC News that Fullerton's response didn't instill confidence that the province is going to make the systemic changes necessary to avoid a future catastrophe.

"I'm unhappy because we have a long-term care system that's been long neglected and I don't necessarily hear a response to this report from the government that is going to make me feel like things are going to dramatically change tomorrow," Sinha said.

"I think this government does owe an apology [to staff and residents who died and their families] because the recommendations and finding of the report does say that even this government didn't move quick enough."

Fullerton 'did nothing,' NDP says

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called for Fullerton to resign or be removed from cabinet in the wake of the Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission's report, saying the minister knew seniors in nursing homes were at risk of COVID-19 and that thousands would likely die.

"She knew that residents were dying not only of COVID-19, but of dehydration and neglect — all of them alone and in pain," Horwath said.

"But she did nothing. She let people die, rather than speak out or take action."

While previous governments all privatized and underfunded long-term care, the current government also had a role to play in the neglect, said Horwath. For example, Premier Doug Ford's government scaled back inspections, has not provided staff with adequate paid sick days and left facilities understaffed.

The commission submitted its final 322-page report to the provincial government last Friday. The report highlighted the actions and inactions that contributed to the devastation in long-term care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commission, which was established last year, concluded that the province failed to learn lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and that sweeping reforms are needed to protect Ontarians in long-term care in the future.

Watch | Geriatric specialist says Ontario owes long-term care residents an apology:

The report was made public just days after a review by Ontario's auditor general drew similar conclusions.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said that by the time COVID-19 started to ravage Ontario's long-term care homes in March 2020, it was obvious "aggressive infection prevention, detection and patient care actions were needed — and needed quickly — to prevent staggering death rates" in the LTC community.

That didn't happen, Lysyk reported.

The first cases of COVID-19 were found in four LTC homes on March 17 of last year. From March 2020 to the end of the year, 76 per cent of LTC homes in Ontario reported cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff.

As of today, 3,918 residents and 11 long-term care stuff have died with the illness in Ontario, according to provincial data.

At a news conference last week following the release of Lysyk's review, Fullerton repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether she shares any responsibility for Ontario's response to COVID-19 in long-term care.

"I'm one person, this is an integrated response," Fullerton said, often pivoting to blaming previous governments for the sector's failure to adequately limit deaths of residents and staff.

"Our government is fixing a broken system," she said.