The owner of a retirement home in central Newfoundland says the COVID-19 situation inside his facility is dire — and he believes it's time for the regional health authority to call in outside help.
Shane Penney, who owns Springdale Retirement Living together with his wife, told CBC News that 19 out of 90 residents and 17 out of 35 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, and more test results are pending.
"It's very, very serious; very busy at our facility," Penney said on Tuesday.
Penney said his already-dwindling staff has reached a critical level during this outbreak, and while Central Health has provided some assistance, it isn't enough.
He said he understands resources are stretched — but he believes that means it's time for the regional health authority to ask for help from other sources such as the military or the Red Cross.
"If we are not looking outside to external resources, I'm really fearful of what that might mean and the dire consequences that that's going to have," he said.
He said things came to a head Monday night when his wife, who was asymptomatic but not yet finished isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, was forced to return to work due to critically low staff at the home.
"There was no resources available and calls to Central Health and our regulation authority didn't produce any results," he said.
Penney said he also tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, and also went to the home for a brief period – though he said he remained in his office and did not have any contact with anyone.
"I basically had no choice," he said. "In order to avoid an emergency situation, I went in the building, I stayed in my own office and camped out there."
Penney said he advised Central Health of both situations, and the health authority told him he was going against protocol. Penney said he is now isolating at home and has no plan to break isolation again, but he may be forced to if staffing reaches critical levels.
In a statement on Wednesday, Central Health spokesperson Gayle St. Croix said the regional health authority has been monitoring the outbreak at Springdale Retirement Living since Jan. 7.
"Since that time Central Health has supported the facility with personnel to go into the home. We have also provided PPE and testing support," said St. Croix.
St. Croix did not specifically comment on staff working at the home while they're supposed to be isolating.
"We are trying our best honestly to abide by that public health order, and I will not knowingly and intentionally break that order unless somebody is deemed to have no care," Penney said.
Homes across N.L. dealing with outbreaks, exposures
Penney's home is just one of dozens of congregate living facilities across Newfoundland and Labrador contending with COVID-19 exposures and outbreaks after nearly two years of avoiding the disastrous situations seen in other parts of the country.
During a media briefing on Monday, N.L. Health Minister John Haggie said around 80 homes in the Eastern Health region alone are dealing with cases within staff or residents. Last Friday, a spokesperson for Eastern Health said there are 24 outbreaks in privately and publicly-run homes in the region.
St. Croix said one Central Health long-term care home is currently experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. She said Central Health could not comment on how many personal care homes are experiencing outbreaks because they are private businesses.
St. Croix said anyone in Central Health who is hospitalized for COVID-19 will be admitted to the James Paton Memorial Regional Health Centre or the Central Newfoundland Regional Health Centre, where there is a dedicated space for COVID-19 patients with 19 beds. She said there are 17 ICU beds with surge capacity and 34 ventilators between the two hospitals.
"We have isolation rooms and private rooms to accommodate such admissions," she said.
In a statement provided to CBC News on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Labrador-Grenfell Health said the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Long-Term Care Home is the only long-term or privately-run personal care home in the region currently in the midst of an outbreak, with 13 cases in that facility so far.
Western Health did not respond to a request from CBC News for information regarding the number of long-term and personal care homes in the region with outbreaks.
Unions working with health authorities
Sherry Hillier is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 2,800 health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, mostly in the Western Health region.
Hillier said all 11 Western Health facilities staffed by CUPE members have been hit with COVID-19 and staffing shortages. She said about 140 CUPE members in Western Health are currently isolating or have tested positive for COVID-19.
She said the union has "good neighbour" agreements in place with other unions that could see employees reassigned to areas in critical need, such as the Bay St. George Long-Term Care Centre in Stephenville Crossing
"We've been working very well with the health authorities and Western Health," she said.
Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Union of Public and Private Employees, said he's hearing that a "significant" number of health-care facilities across the province, including long-term and acute care homes, are dealing with outbreaks and positive cases.
"In the last waves we talked about trying to identify facilities that had positive cases. We're almost reverse now trying to identify facilities where there are no cases."
Earle said the situation seems to be improving — he said 1,000 NAPE members were in isolation last week, but that number has since decreased to about 750.
However, Earle said the COVID-19 situation in privately-run personal care homes — such as Springdale Retirement Living — is becoming more concerning.
"What we're hearing now is private personal care homes actually looking for help from our public sector employees," he said. "It is extremely challenging right now, no doubt about it."