Grieving family says dad's funeral didn't cause Anson Place's COVID-19 outbreak

First Barbara Lalonde's father died. Then five members of her family got COVID-19 and it's possible she did too. Now the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit appears to be pointing to her dad's funeral as the start of a coronavirus outbreak at Anson Place Care Centre in Hagersville.

There are 9 confirmed deaths at Anson Place, and 42 residents and 28 staff have the virus

"He stuck up for my family," says Barbara Lalonde of Arthur Harek, "and we’re still sticking up for my dad." (Harek family)

First Barbara Lalonde's father, Arthur Harek, died. Then five members of her family got COVID-19, and it's possible she did too. Now the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit appears to be pointing to her dad's funeral as the start of a coronavirus outbreak at Anson Place Care Centre in Hagersville, but Lalonde says if anything, it's the other way around.

Ruby McCarroll, a retired teacher, was an Anson Place resident when she died on March 30. (Mike McCarroll)

The health unit says a "significant number" of cases at Anson Place, where nine people have died and more than 40 per cent of residents have the virus, came from a funeral. Lalonde says it seems to be referencing her dad's small funeral at Waterford's Thompson-Mott Funeral Home on March 19.

No one from Anson Place was there, she says, and no one went to Anson Place after the funeral, so it's impossible that the funeral caused the outbreak. Lalonde says she'd like the health unit to apologize.

"We feel like we've done something wrong," said Lalonde, a Waterford resident. "Like we're the villain. That's how all of us feel."

The dispute is just the latest chapter in an outbreak that has caused grief and sadness in the mostly rural counties of Haldimand and Norfolk. Forty-two residents at the 101-bed care centre have tested positive for COVID-19. So have 28 staff.

Harek was never tested for COVID-19. Lalonde says in hindsight, it's "very, very possible" that he had it when he died on March 16, and that COVID-19 has been present at Anson Place for longer than people have imagined.

Harek was 95 and a retired farmer from Waterford, Lalonde said. He'd been robust and healthy all his life, and while he was "slowing down," he'd never had respiratory issues. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe.

Lalonde says the family took him to the hospital four times starting on March 8. Three times, doctors said it was his heart and sent him back to Anson Place. The fourth time, the family insisted he stay. 

Before retirement, Arthur Harek had a farm near Waterford. His daughter says he had a good sense of humour, and was always ready with a witty remark. (Harek family)

"He was very, very tired," Lalonde said. "He had a runny nose, and coughing, of course. He had a massive rattle in his back. When you touched his back, you could feel it. He had a very hard time breathing."

Lalonde has since had mild symptoms of COVID-19, but says despite multiple calls to the health unit, she wasn't tested until last Friday. By then, the two-week period had passed and her symptoms had subsided. Her two sisters and three members of their families tested positive for COVID-19, and they're all recovering.

The health unit wouldn't comment on Lalonde's claims Wednesday, or elaborate on the impact of the funeral.

The important part, said spokesperson Matt Terry, is that a cluster of cases have been identified, which means "we're in a better position to contain the spread of the virus."

Mike McCarroll says he's gotten numerous messages with kind words about his mother Ruby, which has helped him weather this. (Mike McCarroll)

As for Anson Place, residents are isolated, and the home is rushing to find people to fill shifts.

"Our home is a tightly knit community, and this is a difficult time for everyone," said Lisa Roth, executive director of Anson Place, in an email Tuesday. 

Mike McCarroll's mom Ruby, 95, was an Anson Place resident, and died on March 30. When it happened, she'd been quarantined at Anson Place for more than two weeks.

"I would talk to her about it before, and she'd say, 'I hope this virus goes away so people can come visit again,'" he said. "That was a week before she passed away."

"I don't blame anyone at Anson Place … They do good work there. I think they're stretched in terms of how many staff they have that can have work. The province needs to look at staffing within long-term care facilities to be able to deal with outbreaks like this."

The Halidmand-Norfolk Health Unit says nine deaths at Anson Place are confirmed COVID-19 cases. (ansonplacecarecentre.ca)

Anson Place is working with the health unit and the Ministry of Health to "ensure all necessary steps are being taken to manage the outbreak," Roth said. That includes isolating residents, monitoring residents and staff for symptoms, cleaning more and using personal protective equipment.

Twenty-eight staff are off sick, which means the remaining staff are taking more shifts and "going above and beyond," Roth said.

"We are working hard to increase our staffing roster and a number of caring and skilled individuals have already stepped forward from our community."

"Hagersville is a small community with a big heart."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

With files from Stephanie Matties and Ellen Mauro