British Columbia

B.C. to expand 211 service to match seniors with services during COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie says the province has agreed to expand the 211 line for community services in order to match seniors who need help coping with the strains of COVID-19 isolation with volunteers who want to help.

Seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie says province also providing more funding for Better at Home program

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie will announce increased support for vulnerable seniors under the threat of COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie says the province has agreed to expand the 211 phone line for community services to match seniors who need help coping with the strains of COVID-19 isolation with volunteers who want to help.

In a press conference with Health Minister Adrian Dix, Mackenzie said the province was also going to increase funding for the Better At Home program, which helps seniors remain independent at home and stay connected with their community.

"Seniors want to do the right thing and stay at home but they are going to need our help to do this," Mackenzie said.

"If we put ourselves in the shoes of a senior, we can begin to understand the challenges older people face. They are frankly afraid that if they get [COVID-19] they will die."

The increased support for seniors comes out of a cross-party committee formed last week to address the particular vulnerabilities of seniors coping with the possibility of increased isolation as a result of social distancing.

She said the government has been inundated with calls from members of the community who want to help by buying groceries and other necessities or by helping to keep seniors who can't leave their homes for fear of contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

'Stay home and let us help'

Prior to this week, the 211 service was not available to people in northern B.C., but Mackenzie said the service is being extended to the region.

"My message to B.C. seniors is simple: Please do not be afraid but please stay home and let us help," she said.

"Your kids, your grandkids, your community, every one of your elected officials at every level of government want to help."

The measures come as COVID-19 threatens some of the province's most vulnerable citizens, particularly the residents of long-term care homes.

Canada's first COVID-19-related death occurred more than two weeks ago at North Vancouver's Lynn Valley Care Centre, a for-profit privately owned long term care centre.

As of this week, 11 of the facility's residents have died and more than three dozen have tested positive for COVID-19. Nineteen staff members have also contracted the virus.

Fragility of long-term care system

In the weeks since provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the first case of COVID-19 at Lynn Valley, outbreaks have been detected in six other long-term care facilities.

In one of those cases, an employee who worked at the Lynn Valley facility is believed to have transmitted the novel coronavirus to Hollyburn House in West Vancouver.

The number of cases at Vancouver's Haro Park Centre spiked this week to include 28 residents and 27 staff members. Henry confirmed a death at the facility on Monday.

She said the situation has underscored the "fragility" of B.C.'s long-term care homes in the face of the threat of COVID-19.

To that end, Henry introduced measures limiting employees of long-term care, acute care and assisted-living facilities to working in a single facility. She has also mandated increased screening and protocol around visitors and protective gear.

Mackenzie has written several reports raising concerns about financial transparency and the impacts of short staffing, staff turnover and lower wages on the industry's for-profit sector.

In a report issued last February, she said the for-profit sector spends an average of 17 per cent less per worked hour and wages paid to care aides specifically are up to 28 per cent less than the industry standard.

Many in the sector hold down several jobs, making themselves available for work at other facilities or for care to private individuals. Many are temporary foreign workers.

"It must be acknowledged that, for many operators, the long-term care home is also a business," Mackenzie wrote in her report. "For-profit care homes, by the nature of their business, expect to demonstrate a profit/surplus; this underlying fact sets in motion incentives that may, at times, conflict with the best interests of the resident."