Calgary woman moves dad from long-term care home amid calls to stop the deaths
'We told you this was going to happen 20 years ago'
Pressure is mounting for the Alberta government to impose tougher measures to address the toll COVID-19 is taking inside continuing care homes.
Nearly three quarters of Alberta's COVID-19 deaths (82 of 112 deaths as of Wednesday) have been in care homes and several facilities have struggled to halt the spread of the virus.
Calgary care homes have been particularly hard. Five of the six new deaths announced Wednesday occurred at Calgary facilities and there are a total of 30 continuing care outbreaks in the Calgary zone. The province publicly reports these outbreaks when two or more cases are documented in a centre.
"People were passing away ... and I just decided, well, I have to do something," said Jessica Raynor, who felt helpless as she watched COVID-19 sweep through the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre where her 72-year-old father Desmond — who is in a wheelchair after having a stroke — lived.
By the time the outbreak peaked there, 21 people had died and 99 care workers and residents had tested positive.
Raynor moved her Dad home with her last week after he tested positive and then recovered from the virus — too scared to leave him at the centre.
"All of these seniors, they're supposed to be safe and they're not. And it breaks my heart that they're in this situation and there's nothing they can do."
'We told you this was going to happen'
Seniors advocates in Alberta say the COVID-19 pandemic — and the fear loved ones experience — is shining a light on problems inside Alberta's nursing homes — which they've been raising the alarm about for years.
"We told you this was going to happen 20 years ago. And we told you again in 2003 and in 2005 and in 2008 and so on," said Carol Wodak, with the Edmonton-based advocacy group Seniors Action and Liason Team (SALT) and director of the seniors task force with Public Interest Alberta.
She believes factors including privatization, low pay for workers and staffing shortages have left care homes ill prepared to deal with crises.
"We knew that the care facilities ... were not in any state to keep people safe even through flu ... so when there was an epidemic of something serious this was to be expected."
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Wodak wants the province to set up a group of independent experts to conduct unannounced inspections during the pandemic.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is also demanding more oversight.
It's calling on the Ministry of Health to investigate all continuing care centres to ensure they're following pandemic guidlines. It also wants Alberta Health Services (AHS) to step in earlier and take over operations if violations are found and when outbreaks are declared.
"We've seen a major tragedy unfold in our long-term care system," said Bonnie Gostola, a vice-president with AUPE and a health-care aide.
"Any facility that is looking after a vulnerable clientele should have [to show] that they have interventions in place to protect not only the clients but the workers and caregivers that are looking after them ... and this should have happened even before there was an outbreak."
Alberta behind some other provinces in deaths
Long-term care expert, Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, has been monitoring how the pandemic has evolved across the country.
"Alberta's not the province I worry about the most. But I'm still concerned given there's so many homes that have gone into outbreak there and there's still mounting deaths everyday," he said.
"These are some of our most vulnerable Albertans and COVID — as it's been getting into these homes — [has] killed about 17 or 18 per cent of those folks who've gotten COVID. So it's been spreading through and with deadly consequences."
According to Sinha more than 80 per cent of Canadian COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care, so Alberta — at 73 per cent — falls below the national average.
B.C. on the other hand managed to reign in its COVID-19 outbreaks early and sits at roughly 62 per cent.
"B.C., by taking some more definitive steps, has actually been able to have less homes in outbreaks than what we have in Alberta right now. I am concerned that Alberta hasn't fared as well as a bigger province next door to it. And it tells us that there's a lot more than we need to do."
One key measure, according to Sinha, is the B.C. government's early decision to limit workers to one facility. To do that, the provincial government took over as their employer, paying them full-time salaries to stabilize the workforce.
Alberta Health planning more oversight
Alberta's chief medical officer of health issued an order on April 10 restricting continuing care employees from working in more than one location but, after a nurses' union filed a grievance and called for clarity about how the change would impact its members, the deadline was lifted.
In an email to CBC News a spokesperson for Alberta Health said the order will be implemented as soon as possible: "There are now over 95 per cent of the workforce working at single sites. AHS and operators are working together to address remaining overlaps of multi-site workers, with work expected to be completed this week," the statement read.
The province says it's also taking steps to monitor care homes — both those battling COIVD-19 outbreaks and those that are clear — more closely.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health said Wednesday that a Ministry of Health team that conducts regular audits and inspections of continuing care facilities is putting together a plan to start additional inspections related to the pandemic.
"Starting with those facilities that do have outbreaks and then moving into the facilities that do not and doing proactive inspections to make sure that all of the measures laid out in the continuing care orders are being implemented and that everything that can be done to protect residents and staff is in place," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
However, she didn't say if she would instruct Alberta Health Services to intervene earlier and take over facilities when an outbreak is first declared or when violations are identified.