London

Outbreak at London, Ont., group home reveals health system stretched too thin

A coronavirus outbreak at a London, Ont., group home paints a picture of a system where families feel like they're in the dark, caregivers are struggling to keep residents safe and the provincial government is unable to answer even basic questions about the system itself.

As staff grapple with ensuring resident safety, families grapple with a lack of information

Andre Brown, seen here visiting with family, lives at Bruce Residence in London, Ont. (Submitted by Tony Brown)

Tony Brown talks to his brother Andre every day. The nature of the 63-year-old's schizophrenia means any conversation about physical distancing, mask wearing, or coronavirus is moot. 

"I've tried to explain it to him," Brown said. "COVID-19 is just a name to him. It's just the nature of the illness and the medication."

So when Andre rang his brother up at the end of January to tell him there was an outbreak of the virus at the Bruce Residence, his London, Ont., group home, Tony was taken aback. 

"A lot of things run through your head. This virus would make his life a lot more stressful for him if he got any sicker than he is, so yeah, it bothered me quite a bit." 

Families in the dark, caregivers struggling amid government silence

Tony Brown is a retired electrician who says there should be more information for families with relatives living in group homes affected by COVID-19. (Submitted by Tony Brown)

What also bothered Brown is the fact he heard about the outbreak from his brother and not the group home itself. There was also no mention of it in the media. Unlike long-term care homes, group homes and assisted living facilities are not required to publicly report outbreaks of coronavirus. 

In the London region alone, there have been 11 outbreaks of the virus at group homes since the pandemic began. It's not clear how many people have been affected or how many people have died.

At a provincial level, information is even murkier. The Ministry of Health was unable to provide a response to CBC News to basic questions about the number of group homes in Ontario, provincial laws governing reporting of outbreaks or how they've fared during the pandemic, despite multiple reminders over a period of eight days. 

It paints a picture of a system where families feel like they're in the dark, caregivers are struggling to keep residents safe and the provincial government is unable to answer even basic questions about the system itself. 

'We all felt like we were chickens running around with our heads cut off'

For Brown and many families who have loved ones inside assisted living facilities in Ontario, their only source of any reliable information was the group home itself and while staff at Bruce Residence take excellent care of his brother Andre, Brown argues the virus made it seem like they were overwhelmed. 

"I think they were in over their heads. I can understand why things didn't go down the way I would like, but that being said, I would have liked a little bit more information because my brother has lots of issues." 

Brown found out from the home's manager, Tracey Wardle, that 21 out of 48 people who lived at Bruce Residence tested positive for the virus within just a few days of the first case. Four out of nine staff also tested positive and so did Wardle.

She admits, in those first seven days of the outbreak, she simply didn't have time for the 10-minute phone call with each family. 

"The first week we all felt like we were chickens running around with our heads cut off," she said. 

'They have questions, "am I going to die?"'

First she had to inform residents, staff, coordinate with the local health unit, social workers, the Canadian Mental Health Association and order extra protective equipment from the Local Health Integration Network. 

On top of that residents and staff were ill, healthy staff were working extra hours and on their days off. Plus there were the endless questions from residents, many of whom can't possibly process what was happening because, like Andre, they suffer from impaired judgment and decision-making. 

"There's always three or four at my door. They have questions, 'am I going to die?' Because that's all they heard on the news, that people are dying." 

"It's so hard to explain to them," she said. "You have to do it on a daily basis because some of them will get up the next morning and they'll forget that they were supposed to put their mask on or they can't just walk around the house like they used to." 

The isolation from quarantine also makes the mental health symptoms of some residents worse, according to Wardle, who said that even though 90 per cent of the positive cases were asymptomatic, they all had to stay in their rooms until they were cleared by health officials. 

"I know some of the families were wondering why they didn't get that call the first or second day, but they have to remember that we had to get organized here to make sure the virus didn't spread any farther." 

"I needed to make sure everyone was safe," she said. "The people here are my main concern. We've done the best that we can."

'They're falling through the cracks and nobody is looking'

Bruce Residence in London, Ont., is a group home where 21 of its 48 residents became ill with COVID-19. Four out of nine staff also tested positive. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Wardle said her home was lucky. While 21 people tested positive, only two residents were hospitalized. A few had minor symptoms such as a cough or runny nose and 90 per cent of those who tested positive showed no symptoms at all. 

Since the outbreak began, Wardle said county health officials have given residents and staff the coronavirus vaccine, but the home will likely be under lockdown until at least March 8 and as long as March 28 after two more residents tested positive last week. 

It means Tony Brown won't be able to see his brother Andre, or drive him to the doctor for another month. Still, given the lack of information from the government and in the media he wonders if people who need supervised care is the latest gap to be exposed by the coronavirus crisis. 

"These people are on the margins. They are disenfranchised. They can't advocate for themselves. Maybe they've burned bridges with family members because of their mental health or drug addiction."

"They're falling through the cracks and nobody is looking."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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