British Columbia

Seniors suffering from total isolation in B.C. care homes with months-long COVID-19 outbreaks, families say

Leila Emery says her 76-year-old mother has been locked in her room 24 hours a day since an outbreak was declared at Menno Home in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 18 after a resident was exposed in acute care.

‘It feels like they’re in a prison,’ says daughter of resident in Abbotsford facility

Sandy Roberts has been confined to her room at Menno Home in Abbotsford, B.C., since Nov. 18, 2020, when the facility went on lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak. (Leila Emery)

Family members are worried the COVID-19 outbreaks that have put long-term care facilities on lockdown since November and kept seniors isolated in their rooms are having a worse effect on their loved ones than the virus itself would.

Leila Emery says her 76-year-old mother, Sandy Roberts, has been locked in her room 24 hours a day since an outbreak was declared at Menno Home on Nov. 18 after a resident was exposed in acute care.

Since then, 42 out of 45 residents have tested positive at the long-term care facility in Abbotsford, B.C., and 12 of them have passed away. There are currently three active cases remaining.

Menno Home has confirmed that residents are not allowed to leave their rooms or socialize in any way while the outbreak is ongoing.

Emery said that means she can't stay in touch at all with her mother, who is hard of hearing and can't communicate by phone or video call.

"I'm worried that she thinks we've abandoned her based on the fact that we can't talk to her on the phone," she said. "It feels like they're in a prison, like they're locked inside the room. They cannot leave. They cannot have visitors.

"For me, if I was locked in my bedroom or not allowed to come out of my room and just kept in there for two to three months, I would definitely decline emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually."

Visitor access to long-term care homes across Canada has been restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dr. Maria Chung, a gerontologist who visits facilities that have experienced outbreaks, says the prolonged isolation is having a damaging effect on seniors' wellbeing.

"A lot of them are very, very dependent," she explained. "If someone has a lot of difficulty eating because of physical disabilities or because of their cognitive issues, they might take an hour to eat and the staff would not have time to do that.

"But if you have a family member such as an adult child or a spouse come, they're the ones that would be sitting with them and helping them eat."

Chung also says the number of care hours each resident is getting is being affected in facilities with outbreaks as sick residents require more time.

Currently, 51 long-term care, assisted living and independent living facilities across the province are on lockdown due to active COVID-19 outbreaks. Seventeen of those outbreaks began before December, the longest one having been declared at the Royal Arch Masonic Home in mid-October.

As per the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, an outbreak is generally considered over when 28 days, or two full incubation periods, have passed from the last date a person was exposed to the virus, and no new COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed. 

The length of time needed to declare an outbreak over can also be increased or decreased by the health authority's medical health officer. 

Under the current outbreak protocols, residents living in facilities with active cases like Menno Home could end up living in total isolation in their rooms for nearly three months.

Johanna Trimble, who works on the Doctors of B.C. geriatrics and palliative care subcommittee with Chung, says having families visit is one of the only ways to know what's going on inside care homes.

"If there's difficulties with care and if there are unsafe practices going on, it's not going to be management giving that information to families," she said. "But family members are going to be aware of those kinds of problems because they keep a pretty close eye on the condition of their family member and they know if things have changed for the worse." 

Families have complained about the lack of transparency in how facilities are responding to outbreaks as the death toll climbs at care homes like Little Mountain Place in Vancouver.

Outbreaks reflect high community transmission: Dix

On Friday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province has a plan to hire 7,000 additional people to work in health care, with 1,200 already hired and thousands more are qualifying.

He said the outbreaks in B.C.'s care homes since November are a reflection of the higher rate of infection in the community during the pandemic's second wave.

"This is the impact of community transmission and everywhere that has an impact on people in long-term care," said Dix. "On Vancouver Island, we've had no deaths in long-term care because there's been relatively little community transmission."

The minister says the same measures — such as single-site staffing and infection control procedures — are in place across the province, but infection rates are much higher in Metro Vancouver and parts of the Interior, which is leading to more devastating outbreaks.

He said 60 workers from Vancouver Coastal Health have been sent as relief staff to Little Mountain Place. Dix did not specify whether long-term care homes have enough staff to be able to cohort them to specific floors or departments of facilities before outbreaks happen to limit the spread of the virus.