Manitoba

Seniors advocate blasts care homes, province over requests for families to help look after loved ones

A seniors' advocate is criticizing the Manitoba government and two care homes after the facilities wrote residents' families this week outlining a worst-case scenario should they experience staffing shortages when vaccine requirements for care home workers kick in.

Care homes in Winkler, Morden bracing for possible staffing shortage as worker vaccine mandates kick in Monday

A letter that went out to families with loved ones in Tabor Home in Morden and Salem Home in Winkler this week encourages them to consider coming in to help care for residents or take them out of the facilities, should staffing shortages become an issue amid vaccine mandate deadlines next week. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)

A seniors' advocate is criticizing the Manitoba government and two care homes after the facilities wrote residents' families this week outlining a worst-case scenario should they experience staffing shortages when vaccine requirements for care home workers kick in.

Salem Home in Winkler and Tabor Home in nearby Morden sent out near-identical letters on Tuesday and Thursday.

They detail contingency plans that encourage family members to come care for their loved ones in the event of a staffing shortage, which could happen as early as Monday when the mandates take effect.

Among other duties, volunteers would be asked to feed, clean, dress and brush the teeth of residents, along with doing laundry and planning activities. Families are also asked to consider pulling their loved ones out of facilities if staffing becomes a serious issue.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said on Friday the letters were only meant to make families aware of a possible contingency.

Lawyer Laura Tamblyn Watts said expecting people without training to provide care in such a case is untenable and needs to be addressed by the province.

"Those contingency plans are both shocking and irresponsible," said Tamblyn Watts, CEO of the national seniors' advocacy group CanAge. 

"With respect, that comment from the minister seems to be a dodge.… You cannot slough off a contingency plan that is entirely in the purview of the minister of health onto, in this case, rural family members of fragile residents."

Laura Tamblyn Watts is the CEO of CanAge, a national seniors' advocacy organization. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Tamblyn Watts said even as a contingency, the plan hints at a health and resource problem that should be dealt with as a crisis. 

"That means we're right back to where we were earlier in COVID, where we're having emergency-based services, Red Cross, military or other hospital-based services coming in to prop up the system," she said.

"Telling beleaguered and worried family members that the lives of their loved ones are out of the hands of the personal care home, it's shocking and frankly ridiculous. If they are under a staffing emergency, for whatever reason, they need to get the help they need to keep their residents safe."

As of Friday, Shared Health said more than 29,700 out of 42,000 health-care workers in the province had indicated they were vaccinated. About 1,800 weren't vaccinated and will have to undergo COVID-19 testing every 48 hours. The organization expects more results to come in over the weekend.

Salem and Tabor homes serve some of the communities with the lowest vaccine uptake in Manitoba. Winkler, and the municipality of Stanley that surrounds it, had rates of 42.9 and 24.8 per cent, respectively, as of Friday.

In a joint statement, Salem CEO Sherry Janzen and Tabor CEO Carolyn Fenny said it was important to share the staffing uncertainties with families.

"We know families have responsibilities and obligations outside of their loved one's residence at our personal care home," the statement reads. "Our intent was to open the dialogue and to seek preferences or possible options from families, as they are able."

A professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba said the letters show foresight in raising possible problems early.

Michelle Driedger is a professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

"But at the same time, it raises a number of flags for why there are no contingencies in place given the upcoming and anticipated deadline," said Michelle Driedger, who specializes in public health risk communication.

"I find it surprising that the care home[s] ... [are] unaware of how staff plan to respond to the requirement to be tested regularly for COVID if they are not vaccinated. That would certainly help them plan better."

Tamblyn Watts said there were staffing shortages in long-term care pre-pandemic. Those shortages worsened as many workers left the field amid COVID-19 due to exhaustion or for safer-feeling, better-paying jobs, she said.

She also accused the provincial government of failing to follow through on recommendations stemming from a scathing report earlier this year into the Maples Long Term Care Home in Winnipeg.

That was one of two Revera-run facilities where dozens of residents died due to significant outbreaks, tied in part to staffing shortages. An investigator said Maples wasn't ready for "precipitous and significant loss of staff over a very short window of time" when workers who tested positive or were close contacts had to isolate.

The review found the province was responsible for not instructing the care home to boost staffing amid an outbreak.

"What we're seeing right now is a failure of leadership, a failure of planning, a failure of implementation and most of all, a failure to correct the issues that were so clearly laid out in the Maples report that that government promised to make changes on," Tamblyn Watts said. 

"There's an underlying problem here that no one seems to be addressing. The elephant in the room is no one wants these jobs, and we have to ask ourselves why."

Kyle Penner said he understands why some people in his southeastern Manitoba community are frustrated by government-imposed vaccination mandates. 

But the associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach also hopes care home workers who are still on the fence get immunized.

"To care for those who people are trusting us with their safety, I think that's an opportunity we can't pass up, and right now in a global pandemic that means taking the vaccine," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

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