Doctors, researchers call for long-term care changes from Ontario government

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TORONTO — Ontario must take urgent action to address the rising number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care, a group of over 200 doctors, researchers and advocates said Tuesday, calling the situation a "humanitarian crisis."

In a letter to Premier Doug Ford's government, the group said the province does not appear to have learned from deadly nursing-home outbreaks during the first wave of the pandemic, which led to almost 2,000 deaths.

Instead, staffing shortages, poor infection control, and a delayed response to outbreaks continue to occur in the homes with deadly consequences, the group wrote.

"Due to the Ontario government's inaction ... LTC residents are at high risk of death from COVID-19," the letter said. "In many circumstances, residents are also left without basic care, hygiene, food and water. This is a human rights violation."

The group recommended a series of sweeping changes across the sector to help save lives as the pandemic continues.

Among them are calls to immediately bolster staffing, legislate a minimum standard of daily care for residents, and provide unrestricted access to family caregivers with personal protective equipment.

Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University specializing in family caregiving and one of the group's organizers, said the situation in long-term care is dire.

"What is happening here is a humanitarian crisis," she said. "The rights of these residents ... are violated with impunity by being locked away from their loved ones in spite of the directives which supposedly gives them uninterrupted access."

In addition to its recommendations, the group also wants the province to begin the process of removing for-profit long-term care providers from the sector.

"Any home operator that does not comply with staffing ratios, infection control protocols, or commits any other major infraction which harms the residents should immediately and permanently lose their license and face a harsh penalty," the group said.

The group also wants immediate military assistance where nursing-home staffing has "collapsed."

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that military assistance has not currently been requested, as it was last year, because many nursing home have established partnerships with local hospitals.

"Hospitals are standing forward and helping the long-term care homes that are having problems, both in terms of supplying staff, as well as supplying PPE and whatever else they need," she said.

Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said the province has learned lessons from the pandemic's first wave and made changes.

"The current number of resident and staff cases, as well as outbreaks, remain my top concern," she said in a statement. "We are confident that our measures, such as regular surveillance testing, universal masking, temporary pandemic pay for staff, an eight-weeks supply of PPE and emergency replenishments, strong local partnership including with hospitals and numerous emergency measures are stabilizing the sector."

Provincial figures show that 3,462 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Ford called on the federal government on Tuesday to bolster travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.

Ford said those restrictions should include mandatory testing at airports for all incoming international travellers.

He also said Canada should temporarily ban direct flights from countries where new variants are detected.

"For the federal government, please get mandatory testing," Ford said. "It's absolutely critical to protect our borders."

A voluntary screening program at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport began Jan. 6 and has tested more than 6,800 travellers. The province said of those tests, 146 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

The government said Tuesday that 1.8 per cent of all COVID-19 cases are related to international travel.

As of Jan. 7, under new federal rules, air travellers coming to Canada must take a pre-arrival COVID-19 test.

Dozens of flights have nonetheless arrived since that date with passengers on board who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said new travel restrictions were on the way and urged all Canadians to cancel any non-essential trips they have planned in the coming weeks.

What shape those new rules might take remains up for discussion, he said.

"The bad choices of a few will never be allowed to put everyone else in danger," Trudeau said.

Ontario reported 1,740 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 63 more deaths linked to the virus.

— with files from Stephanie Levitz

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press