‘What I walked into was awful,’ says nurse about Grace Villa COVID outbreak

·7 min read

Three Hamilton Health Sciences’ nurses redeployed into “horrendous” conditions at Grace Villa long-term-care home have tested positive for COVID, says their union.

More than half of the roughly 60 hospital staff sent to work at the east Mountain home with 186 COVID infections were redeployed against their will, says Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) — but they won’t say exactly how many volunteered.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association says it’s the first time in Ontario during the pandemic that it’s aware of its members being sent to seniors’ homes without volunteering first. HHS has the right to redeploy staff as it has assumed temporary management responsibility of the home as of Dec. 16.

What the nurses encountered when they got there was “mind-boggling,” said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

“How could it be that it could get this bad,” she said. “We’re in wave two ... We are in Ontario here. With the spotlight on long-term-care, how could it have gotten to this point that they are going into a place that is — as they described it — ‘horrendous’ when they walked in.”

‘Awful’ sanitary conditions

In an emotional interview, Lisa Scott, a registered practical nurse at Grace Villa, spoke about “awful” conditions within the home.

“When you look under the beds, there’s drinks spilled and stains and food,” she said, noting last week, she spent her whole shift cleaning.

“It was dirty there. If you want to know if there was feces around, there was, yeah. And I’m embarrassed to have to say that,” she said. “I cleaned bathrooms, I washed floors. I was on my hands and knees because it needed it. When people are sick, they need to be in a clean area. That’s just common sense.”

Scott said staff are “trying our best.”

“I had even expressed to the PSW staff, ‘Guys, I know you’re overworked. I know it’s hard and you’re tired. But if we can, we’ve got to try do our best to clean as we go as well,’” she said, her voice trembling.

Scott noted that she had seen a cleaning crew from an external company clean touchpoints and rooms on the home’s third floor, but couldn’t comment on other floors. She last worked inside the home Dec. 14 and could not confirm if more cleaning staff had since been recruited.

“We have enhanced our cleaning staff to facilitate additional sanitation across the home,” said Mary Raithby, CEO of APANS Health Services, in an email. “We have adequate supplies for resident care available to all staff.”

Scott was originally working on the home’s first floor, but when the outbreak started, she moved to the second after a nurse contracted COVID-19. After more staff got sick, she moved up to the third floor — where the outbreak had begun — on Dec. 5.

“What I walked into was awful,” she said, describing that since more residents were getting sick, staff ran out of proper supplies for IVs. “We had to use coat hangers to hang these bags because we didn’t have any IV poles.”

“By the time I got up there, our numbers are starting to dwindle, and there’s been more deaths since I’ve been up there,” she added.

Scott also said, to her knowledge, the outbreak has spread “everywhere” in the home.

“They came to move one of our staff off our floor to go to the other floors, and I said ‘Well, we were under the impression that we needed to stay on the floor we were on and (a staff member) said to me, ‘Well, it’s everywhere.’”

Raithby did not respond to questions about how far the outbreak has spread.

Hospital staff scared to volunteer

HHS put a call out for volunteers earlier in December before it took over management of the home, but it didn’t get enough to have eight to 12 staff per shift, which requires a pool of up to 60 various types of workers. Staff sent to Grace Villa can’t work anywhere else while they are redeployed because of infection control.

“It’s very difficult for staff who work in acute care to shift and work in community care,” said Sharon Pierson, chief operating officer of HHS. “The staff have been wonderful ... Everyone has tried to make the very best of the situation and work together within Grace Villa. It’s not easy.”

She says during the first wave there were a lot more volunteers to go into seniors’ homes, but that was also when a significant amount of care was postponed.

“It’s harder for individuals to volunteer now because their own units are up and running at a much higher occupancy and capacity than they were in wave one,” she said.

Many are also afraid to volunteer, says McKenna from the nursing association, pointing out hospital staff caught the virus despite infection prevention and control assessments being done before they went into Grace Villa. HHS provided them with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and there was twice-daily calls with public health.

“They are in a hot zone,” said McKenna. “They are worried just like anybody else ... They’ve already had three colleagues test positive even with the all the protections in place.”

SEIU Healthcare has made a request to Raithby for an air-quality test to be conducted immediately to see if the virus is being transmitted through the ventilation system, said an emailed statement attributed to union president Sharleen Stewart.

The majority of hospital staff redeployed to Grace Villa are from the nursing resource team, which is available to work anywhere they are needed in the large hospital network.

“They say it’s better and it’s getting better,” McKenna said about the conditions in the home. “Things are improving there.”

Pierson said HHS is committed to managing Grace Villa for 90 days, even as their own hospitals start to become strained during a record-breaking surge of COVID.

“We see this as a priority in terms of being able to stabilize and help this home,” said Pierson. “We don’t know what’s next with this COVID trajectory so ... we’re doing our very best to balance. But we would not be leaving Grace Villa.”

Growing cases at Grace Villa

Scott says she’s now one of the home’s few original staff that hasn’t tested positive for COVID-19. As of 3 p.m. on Dec. 16, the home has seen 186 cases of COVID-19, with 124 residents and 62 staff testing positive.

The Spectator was told previously that 156 people lived at Grace Villa when the outbreak was declared on Nov. 25.

The province is reporting 20 deaths as of 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, while Scott said there were 23 deaths based on staff counts. There are 96 actives cases, according to the province.

“We went from one to 177 (cases) and lost 20 people in three weeks. What went wrong?” she said.

In an email, Raithby said, “We are managing this COVID-19 outbreak with the support of all our partners.

“We are very grateful and appreciative of all our staff from Grace Villa, HHS and our community agencies. Their dedication and commitment to caring for our residents has been exceptional and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Scott said she’s grateful for the community’s support.

“Nursing homes always get a bad rap,” Scott said. “As scared as (families) are, they support us, and they know that we’re doing our best.”

“The last thing I ever want is for someone to say that I didn’t do something correctly, and that I let somebody die because I didn’t,” she continued. “I did my best. We all did our best. We’re all doing our best. And we’re doing the best with what we’ve been dealt.”

Joanna Frketich, The Hamilton Spectator/Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator