Hamilton Health Sciences taking over Grace Villa amid city's largest COVID-19 outbreak

Hamilton Health Sciences is temporarily taking over operation of the home following a "voluntary management agreement" approved by Ontario's Ministry of Long-Term Care.

'What I’ve seen it become is just devastating. It’s a shell,' says RPN Lisa Scott

Grace Villa was the site of Hamilton's largest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreak. (Supplied by Hamilton Health Sciences)

There are times at Grace Villa when Lisa Scott breaks down and cries.

The registered practical nurse has worked at the home on Lockton Crescent for more than 15 years, and says for much of that time, it was a place "filled with love and laughter and family."

But that's changed with COVID-19. An outbreak at the home has infected 186 people — 124 residents and 62 staff members. At least 19 people have died.

It's the largest, and deadliest, outbreak Hamilton has seen so far during the pandemic.

"I find it heartbreaking now that [residents] ask me 'Am I going to die?'" said Scott.

"I tell them I'm going to do my damndest to make sure that doesn't happen."

On Wednesday, the province stepped in. Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is temporarily taking over the home following a "voluntary management agreement" approved by the Ministry of Long-Term Care.

It's the first time the province has facilitated the handover of a Hamilton care home to a hospital.

The agreement gives HHS operational oversight at the home with the goal of managing the outbreak, and to "stabilize" the situation there.

Home says it's focused on safety

The hospital says it will step in with the support of Grace Villa's staff, noting the "contract was entered into amicably by all parties."

HHS staff have already been working in the home for weeks. A Nov. 28 order from public health required Grace Villa to allow hospital employees into the building to investigate and respond to the outbreak by setting up effective infection prevention and control measures.

In giving its reasons for the order, public health stated it received documentation of an active COVID-19 outbreak with "continued transmission," and that the home "has demonstrated practices that are not in keeping with best practices relating to infection prevention and control."

Representatives of Grace Villa have not responded to requests for an interview, or to questions sent by email about the situation inside the home.

The facility is operated by APANS Health Services. A statement from CEO Mary Raithby was included in the HHS media release about the take over.

"Our focus remains on keeping our residents and staff safe," it read in part.

"We look forward to working together with HHS over the coming months to control this outbreak and return the home to normal operations, for our residents and their families, and our staff."

The management agreement follows an emotional plea from Monique Taylor, NDP MPP for Hamilton Mountain, outside Grace Villa.

"My heart goes out to all of these families who are grieving or fearing for their loved one's health," she said in a video posted to Twitter. "This COVID outbreak is out of control and getting worse every single day."

Her call was echoed by NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who tweeted that residents and their families deserve better.

Union says it's a 'war zone'

SEIU Healthcare, the union representing roughly 184 staff at Grace Villa, has written to the federal government asking for the military to be sent in.

President Sharleen Stewart said workers describe the home during the outbreak as being like a "war zone."

"We've got two members who are in the hospital right now. One of them is a single mother with four children at home," she said on Monday.

"The infection control practices in there are being jeopardized because of the shortage of environmental services staff. They can't keep up to it."

The union has also raised concerns about access to personal protective equipment (PPE), in particular N95 masks.

A statement from the office of the Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minster of long-term care, says the home has an "adequate supply" of protective gear, and N95 masks are "available when needed."

The ministry also carried out an inspection at the home Wednesday.

'The halls are eerie'

In the meantime, Scott said, residents are isolated to their rooms, with husbands and wives separated.

Workers must change their PPE for every room they enter, a necessary but time-consuming task that stretches resources and wreaks havoc on schedules.

Staffing, which was already an issue before the pandemic, has become a "huge, huge" problem — especially when it comes to PSWs and housekeepers who are struggling to keep up, she said.

"The garbage is more. The floors are dirty," she said. "It's not in any way clean in my opinion."

The staff members worked hard to keep the virus out of the home and were proud of their success early in the pandemic, said Scott, but it's becoming more difficult. She wonders now how COVID-19 managed to spread so quickly.

"If we're doing what they're telling us and we are wearing what we're supposed to, why are so many getting sick?"

She's been posting videos on social media throughout the outbreak as a way to keep herself sane, stay motivated and ask for help.

The employees still at the home are leaning on each other for support and trying not to hold in how they're feeling.

"Today I might be breaking and tomorrow I'll be good, and it'll be someone else's turn to break. We all take our turns," Scott said.

But, as she looks at the situation around her, she's struck by the change at Grace Villa.

"What I've seen it become is just devastating. It's a shell. The halls are eerie."