Saying goodbye through gloves, mask and anger as Rosslyn outbreak claims its 16th victim

Brian Melnike's mother is the 16th resident of the Rosslyn to die after contracting COVID-19. He had a chance to say his final goodbyes Monday.

44 people in Hamilton have died of the virus, 16 of whom lived at the Rosslyn

Brian Melnike says he and his wife Tracy raised questions about a lack of COVID-19 precautions at the Rosslyn Retirement Residence in the weeks before an outbreak was declared. On Tuesday he was told his mother Joan Wallace, who lived at the the home, had died in hospital. (Supplied by Brian Melnike)

Brian Melnike held his mother's hand for the first time in months Monday.

Wearing gloves and staring past a mask and plastic face shield, he clutched her fingers in his as she lay in a hospital bed and promised to make sure her death would stand for something.

"There was no acknowledgement that I was even there. I'm hoping somehow she knew," he said, fighting back tears.

"I told her I loved her and I basically told her we're going to sue these bastards, the Rosslyn. They're the reason why she is where she was."

Around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday Melnike says he got a call from the hospital saying his mother Joan Wallace had died.

The 87-year-old is the 16th resident of the Rosslyn Retirement Residence to die. It's the deadliest outbreak in the city and accounts for more than a third of Hamilton's COVID-19 deaths. The home, in crisis because of an out-of-control outbreak and lack of staff, was evacuated by officials on May 15. All residents still there were sent to hospital.

A paramedic pushes a stretcher into the Rosslyn Retirement Residence in Hamilton, Ont. on May 15. Health-care staff spent the next eight hours transferring residents from the home to hospital. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The barriers between loved ones caused by the pandemic have been a struggle for his family since the beginning, Melnike explained. His mother was dealing with dementia and couldn't understand why her own children couldn't visit her in hospital.

"That's going to kill me for the rest of my life," he said.

"Basically the feeling of abandonment. Even though we did absolutely everything we could you feel like you abandoned them because you weren't there for them physically."

Inspections found infection control issues

Statistics from public health show 43 people in Hamilton have died of COVID-19 as of 9 a.m. 

Melnike says his mother had tested positive for the virus as recently as last week, but Wallace's death won't be added to the official numbers until tomorrow's tally.

Before the outbreak that infected 64 residents and 22 staff members at the home associated with the Martino family being evacuated, Melnike said he raised concerns about what he saw as a lack of infection and prevention control protocols.

Inspections by public health and the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority (RHRA) identified similar issues, along with a "failure to protect residents from neglect."

The director of the city's emergency operations centre even went so far as to say the home seemed to "lack of true understanding in the training and the knowledge around how important infection prevention and control is."

Paul Johnson also said screening of people coming in and out of the building was "simply not happening" and noted "conflicting information" about personal protective equipment supply was provided to officials.

Brian Melnike painted this urn for his mother before her death. (Supplied by Brian Melnike)

The RHRA has since revoked the home's licence, a decision the home can appeal or apply to have stayed.

Representatives of the Rosslyn did not immediately respond to questions about resident deaths, the situation that led to the outbreak or the licence revocation Tuesday. The home has not responded to repeated requests for comment since the outbreak began.

Family exploring legal options

Weeks ago, when the Rosslyn was evacuated and his mother first entered the hospital along with the majority of people living there, Melnike painted an urn with her smiling face.

It's something he does for special people in his life and in a way he's glad he finished it because he's not sure he could paint a single stroke now.

On Tuesday he asked to see his mother one last time, but said he was told he won't be able to visit again.

"There are infection controls, I'm assuming, so she goes right down to the morgue."

Before the final visit with his mother, Melnike said his family went to the Rosslyn to gather her belongings.

What he saw inside the home, still emptied of residents, left him upset.

"They're all in masks, they are taking temperatures, asking questions, they've got chairs spread out in there," he said, pointing out those steps had reportedly not been taken before the outbreak began.

During the visit he said a staff member told him "she's sorry for what we're going through," but offered nothing about the home handled the virus, he added.

Melnike said he's spoken with a lawyer, signed a retainer and is exploring his legal options.

"Had they followed the protocol right from the start … this would never have happened," he explained. "My mother would never have been in the hospital. Sixteen people did not have to die because of the negligence of the Rosslyn."