Toronto doctors slam Manitoba's health minister for saying care home deaths are unavoidable

Manitoba's health minister was publicly denounced by two specialists in geriatric medicine over Twitter this week for saying deaths in care homes are "unavoidable."

‘Tragic, yes. Unavoidable, definitely not,’ says expert in geriatric medicine

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen was taken to task on Twitter this week over comments he made about keeping COVID-19 out of care homes. (David Lipnowski/Canadian Press)

Manitoba's minister of health was publicly denounced by two specialists in geriatric medicine over Twitter this week for saying deaths in care homes are "unavoidable." 

"There is no jurisdiction in Canada in which there have not been deaths in personal care homes. It is tragic, it is regrettable but it is unavoidable," Cameron Friesen said last Thursday in an interview with CBC Radio's Up To Speed.

"If there is a way to avoid COVID-19 deaths in care homes, I'm saying to you carefully that no jurisdiction has found it yet," said Friesen, whose ministry is in charge of ensuring the provision of safe and quality personal care home services through licensing and monitoring.

On Tuesday, Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai in Toronto, tweeted that such deaths are "Tragic, yes. Unavoidable, definitely not."

"I think it's disrespectful to the individuals who've died. I think it's disrespectful to their families. It's disrespectful to the staff who have been trying their hardest to provide the best possible care," Sinha said in an interview with CBC News.

"It just worries me that if we if we use language like … 'It was unavoidable,' then it's not really allowing our leaders to say … 'Maybe this was avoidable. Maybe there were things that we could do,'" said Sinha, who is originally from Winnipeg.

"To say these deaths were unavoidable, that really doesn't give me faith that the province has a real robust strategy in place compared to other jurisdictions, and that's really the tragedy of this."

LISTEN | Health Minister Cameron Friesen's Oct. 15 interview with Up To Speed:

Manitoba's health minister faces backlash for COVID-19 death in care homes

2 years ago
Duration 2:55
Manitoba's health minister is facing criticism today for comments he made regarding COVID-19 deaths in personal care homes. Last week, he called the deaths "tragic" and "unavoidable". Two Toronto doctors and a national seniors advocate are denouncing the statement.

Dr. Nathan Stall, who specializes in geriatrics and internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, also disputes Friesen's claim. 

"Outbreaks like the one in Winnipeg's Parkview Place are avoidable tragedies," Stall tweeted at Friesen.

He points out that Singapore, a country of 6.2 million people, has had three care-home deaths as of October. Hong Kong, with more than seven million people, has had 30. (He corrected an earlier tweet, in which he asserted both of those jurisdictions had no cases based on earlier studies.)

Sinha, meanwhile, said that 243 Manitoba care homes and retirement homes have had no COVID-19 cases or deaths, which he called proof infection and death can be prevented. 

Steps can be taken to prevent spread: Sinha

Parkview Place, the epicentre of Manitoba's deadliest care-home outbreak, reported 94 residents and staff have been infected as of Friday. The province announced the home's 11th COVID-19-related death on Wednesday afternoon. 

CBC reported earlier this week that past Parkview Place inspections revealed filthy conditions, the smell of urine and evidence of cockroaches. 

"We've seen that the Parkview home that has had this significant outbreak, only a few months ago, had issues with infection control and hygiene standards," said Sinha.

"So how was that home going to fare particularly well going into this outbreak, when it has a record of not being a high performer only a few months ago?"

Sinha, who was the architect behind Ontario's Seniors Strategy, says there are many things that can be done to prevent COVID-19 from getting into homes and "spreading like wildfire."

He points to the actions B.C. took to protect care home residents, such as extensive testing, isolating residents properly, and making sure staff work in a single home with full-time hours. Only a small minority of B.C. homes have been affected by outbreaks compared to Alberta, Sinha said.

Saskatchewan, which has four care homes with outbreaks, is performing better than Manitoba, which has logged 18, he said.

'Absolutely avoidable': CanAge

Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge — a national seniors advocacy group — also tweeted her dismay on Tuesday evening.

"These deaths are absolutely avoidable. Change is needed now," wrote Tamblyn Watts, who also teaches a course in law and aging at the University of Toronto 

She says care homes are short-staffed, and rely too heavily on health-care aides and personal support workers rather than more costly registered nurses, physiotherapists and doctors.

"That takes prioritization and money. If we look at other jurisdictions — Singapore, Australia, other OECD countries — the death rate is absolutely minimal, because they have made those investments," said Tamblyn Watts. 

"So are they inevitable? Only if you don't care enough to fix the system."

She says the health minister's assertion that deaths are unavoidable is ageist.

"When I hear the minister talking about acceptable losses that's just another way of saying ... 'Sure, there are significant deficiencies. Sure, there are, in many cases, unlivable conditions. But because it's older people in long-term care, we're going to look the other way."

In an emailed statement, Friesen said outbreaks at long-term care facilities have occurred in all Canadian provinces and evidence shows that residents in these facilities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

"As a result we have seen severe outcomes including death, at a higher rate than the general population. This is why our government has placed a high priority on keeping the elderly and those in care facilities safe," Friesen said. 

If you have a tip about personal care homes, click here to contact Jill Coubrough.

With files from Jill Coubrough


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