By Pauline Kerr
Nursing home residents, along with other vulnerable people who live in group settings, and the staff at those facilities, have become canaries in the bottom of the coal mine for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canada’s public health officials have noted that to date, close to half the COVID-19 deaths in this country have been nursing home residents. Some homes have had horrendous death tolls, for example, Pinecrest in Bobcaygeon.
We understand some of the reasons – the people in long-term care homes are elderly and often in poor health. They also live a generally communal lifestyle, with shared accommodations and staff who move throughout the facility and among various facilities.
However, there are aspects to the situation that are coming to light only now, in the midst of the pandemic.
The highly publicized murders of several nursing home residents by nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer opened the curtains a bit on the abysmal lack of government oversight, combined with low wages and chronic understaffing at long-term care facilities. The public started asking the right questions, especially how this troubled and murderous woman not only kept her job, but kept killing for so long.
However, the curtains closed about the time prison gates closed on Wettlaufer.
They are certainly open now.
Thanks to COVID-19, we are getting a picture of a situation where too many of our most vulnerable citizens have been housed in unacceptable conditions. Perhaps conditions will improve for the survivors. Pinecrest is reported as now having space to isolate patients with the virus.
And then there was the Herron residence in Montreal, where 31 people died, five of them confirmed as having had COVID-19. When health authorities arrived at the home after the alarm was sounded, they found only a handful of staff trying to care for all the residents, some of whom had gone more than 24 hours without food or water.
While these are the most dramatic examples to date, they are by no means unique. There have been constant news stories about equipment shortages and health and safety violations at nursing homes. One facility denied staff access to personal protective equipment including gloves. The Montreal residence apparently had a staff member at work for several days although she had COVID-19 symptoms.
Until government officials took notice in the past couple of weeks, it was routine in long-term care facilities for nurses to work at several part-time jobs in various healthcare settings, due to the lack of full-time positions – a formula for disaster in a pandemic. It was routine to have too few staff members to properly look after residents – forget niceties like stopping for a chat, this means feeding, bathing and personal care. And it was routine for government supervision to be spotty at best.
Most staff members at long-term care facilities would like nothing more than the chance to do their work properly, to look after the residents they care deeply about. They want to be able to respond quickly and safely when residents need something. While they would welcome a couple of minutes to chat with a resident or family member, they would appreciate proper funding and government oversight even more. And yes, they would like pay that is commensurate with their responsibilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that housing the sick and elderly – in fact, any vulnerable population – in crowded conditions creates a breeding ground for disease. This is not modern medical science, it is old-fashioned sanitation. Any First World War nurse could have taught this particular lesson.
This is 2020. Why are we allowing people with respiratory symptoms in nursing homes to be treated in wards, with patients separated by flimsy curtains, when hospitals isolate people with the same symptoms in negative pressure rooms?
Perhaps the time has come to rethink a few other things. Why are we crowding homeless people into shelters when there are hundreds of housing units sitting empty? Why are we building bigger jails that can house more prisoners?
They are human beings, not canaries or lab rats.