Concern for residents as Red Cross ends mission at site of Manitoba's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak

One month after a Red Cross team was urgently deployed to the Maples personal care home in Winnipeg, it’s out - leaving some families worried - again - that their loved ones are at risk.

Maples Long Term Care Home operator Revera says no active cases among residents as of Friday

Jean Giffen, centre, celebrated Valentine's Day at the Maples Long Term Care Home with her mother, Betty Jean Hutchinson, and her stepfather, Russ Smetaniuk, in February, when families could still visit. Hutchinson was among the Maples residents who died following a COVID-19 outbreak at the care home. (Submitted by Jean Giffen)

One month after being deployed to the site of Manitoba's deadliest care home outbreak, a Red Cross team is moving on — leaving some families once again worried that their loved ones are at risk from COVID-19.

The 10-person Red Cross team was sent to the Maples Long Term Care Home in Winnipeg after a tragic weekend in early November, during which paramedics responded to 911 calls and spent hours treating residents for severe dehydration. Eight people at the care home died within 48 hours.

"Please don't let this happen again," said Jean Giffen, the daughter of one of the people who died that weekend, after hearing the Red Cross team had pulled out.

"They don't deserve to be treated this way. Step up to the plate and do your job. My mom would still be here if they would have."

According to the latest update from the province, the outbreak at Maples has now resulted in 228 COVID-19 cases — 71 staff and 157 residents — and 51 deaths. (A Friday update from Revera, the company that operates the care home, includes different totals, and says the number of deaths is 52.)

Winnipeg police officers with the forensic identification unit were seen leaving Maples Long-Term Care Home in personal protective gear on Nov. 7. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Those deaths include Giffen's 87-year-old mother, Betty Jean Hutchinson.

"Her eyes were really sunken in her head and I was told that was a sign of dehydration," Giffen said with a catch in her voice.

"There was a woman across the hall screaming. When I went to see my mom, she was screaming the whole time I was there — 'Help me. I don't want to die in here.'"

Giffen was told her mother had a "sudden death," which she understands to mean a heart attack. Her ward had a COVID-19 outbreak but Hutchinson was not tested after her death. A previous test had come back negative.

It was a Reddit post by an anonymous paramedic that first exposed what was going on in the Revera-owned home during the weekend Giffen's mother died.

It prompted a rare Sunday news conference by Health Minister Cameron Friesen on Nov. 8.

"What transpired at Maples is devastating and Manitobans deserve answers," he said, before launching an external review by an expert who looked into a similar situation at the Northwood personal care home in Halifax last spring.

The interim report from Lynn Stevenson, a former British Columbia associate deputy minister of health, will be on Friesen's desk this week. The final report will be public next month.

Military training 'served me well': Red Cross worker

The Red Cross was asked last month to send in a team to help supplement the staff who were getting sick themselves.

"There was a need and I feel I was suited to do that," said Art Brown, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force officer. "And so I talked to my wife and she supported it. And so I said yes."

Brown, who retired as a lieutenant-colonel, worked with NORAD, the United Nations and NATO, with time on the ground in Congo and Afghanistan.

Art Brown, a now-retired lieutenant-colonel with the Air Force, receives a bar to his Afghan medal from Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance in Kandahar, Afghanistan in August 2010. (Submitted by Art Brown)

He had already spent five weeks in Trenton and Cornwall, Ont., in the spring, helping cruise ship passengers quarantine there.

"The training that we get in the military — supervisor training, managerial skills, how to plan logistics, all of those things you pick up over the over the years … are all things that you can carry over into the Red Cross. And it served me very well," Brown told CBC.

He was put in charge of a team of 10 people from as far away as Saskatchewan and Ontario. 

They helped get meals to residents and did some light sanitizing, but their primary role was checking in on residents.

"Sometimes we could be reading a book. We could be reading a magazine or a newspaper article for them. But I can tell you, mostly it's just companionship in conversation," he said.

WATCH | Red Cross site supervisor Art Brown describes his work at Maples Long Term Care Home:

Red Cross supervisor describes work at site of Manitoba's deadliest care home outbreak

2 years ago
Duration 3:29
Art Brown, a retired Air Force officer, talks about his work as a Red Cross supervisor at the Maples Long Term Care Home in Winnipeg.

While a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority safety review released Nov. 13 found staff were not using personal protective equipment properly, among other serious concerns, Brown says he didn't see anything at Maples that required reporting up the chain of command, and he wants to reassure families.

"Things are improving," he said, adding there was enough personal protective equipment and everyone was following infection prevention and control protocols.

"Staff are working extremely hard to to make things better in there. And we all are looking forward to the day when loved ones can come back in and visit their families."

Brown and his team ended their mission at Maples on Wednesday. As of this weekend, they've been sent to Holy Family Home, another Winnipeg care home dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. 

The Red Cross currently also has teams at Golden Links Lodge and the St. Norbert Personal Care Home in Winnipeg.

'Hope they have enough staff'

Jean Giffen says she was surprised to hear the Red Cross team has left.

Her stepfather, Russ Smetaniuk, 77, still lives at Maples. He recently had both COVID-19 and pneumonia.

"I hope they have enough staff. That's my only concern," she said.

Betty Jean Hutchinson and Russ Smetaniuk celebrated Valentine's Day at the Maples personal care home last February. Smetaniuk has recovered from both COVID-19 and pneumonia. (Submitted by Jean Giffen)

In a statement, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said while Maples is still facing challenges, its staffing levels and case numbers have stabilized.

Revera is also trying to reassure families, and said in its Friday update there are now four active COVID-19 cases among Maples staff members, and no active cases among residents.

"We are back to stable staffing levels, and continue to benefit from the support" from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Revera spokesperson Larry Roberts said in an email statement.