Montreal health official called police for help as pandemic raged in Herron long-term care home
Coroner's inquest begins into private long-term care residence in Dorval, Que., where dozens died in 1st wave
As COVID-19 spiralled out of control at the Herron long-term care home in Montreal's West Island, leaving the residents who survived without access to basic care, health officials struggled to assess the extent of the problem and how to fix it, a coroner's inquest heard on Tuesday.
Lynne McVey, CEO of the West Island health agency, testified that in early April 2020, she became increasingly concerned about the situation at CHSLD Herron.
She said the health agency twice sent legal notices asking the home's owner, the Katasa Group, for the medical files of patients and information about staff at Herron, but the requests were refused.
McVey said she also had email discussions with Montreal Public Health and the Quebec Ministry of Health about the situation.
Finally, on April 10, McVey said she called police herself after learning that the death toll was far higher than stated — 31 people had died at the home, not 13.
McVey was testifying on the first day of an inquest into what transpired at Herron during the COVID-19 pandemic's first wave. The inquiry is taking place in Longueuil, Que., on Montreal's south shore.
Coroner aims to 'shine a light'
Coroner Géhane Kamel will hear from staff and health officials over the next three weeks as the inquest examines the deaths of 47 patients at the home in the spring of 2020.
In her opening remarks, Kamel said she aims to "shine a light" on the circumstances that led to the tragedy rather than determine criminal responsibility.
An earlier government commission report concluded that "organizational negligence" took place at Herron.
According to the report, when the local health authority arrived at the facility on March 29, 2020, three employees were caring for 133 residents.
The health authority found that residents lacked food, water and basic care and that the home was filled with a "nauseating odour of urine and feces."
It took over management of the facility more than a week later, on April 7 — but even then, McVey testified on Tuesday, her office didn't have full access to the home and its records.
Earlier Tuesday, Dr. Mylène Drouin, Montreal's public health director, said she initially didn't have enough information to issue an order for the health authority to take over.
Drouin said it would have been difficult to act more quickly, given that outbreaks were being reported across the network. By early April, she said, there were already 46 outbreaks in long-term care homes.
Peter Wheeland's mother and father were both in Herron at the height of the crisis. They survived after Wheeland was able to have them transferred. Both have since died.
In an interview on Tuesday, Wheeland said the first day of testimony suggests there was "a lot of confusion in the communication" between health officials.
After following the legal fallout over the past several months, Wheeland said he's hopeful the inquiry can finally lead to some "positive change."
No charges laid
The hearings on Herron are part of a broader public inquiry into deaths in long-term care homes that occurred across Quebec in the early days of the pandemic.
The public inquiry began on March 29, more than a month later than planned. It was supposed to start in mid-February, with a look into the debacle at Herron being at the top of the agenda.
Those hearings were postponed, however, until prosecutors decided whether to lay criminal charges against the company's owners.
Quebec's Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions announced last month that it would not lay charges. In a statement, the prosecution service added that the "decision in no way trivializes the tragic events that occurred at CHSLD Herron, nor does it mean any fault of civic or ethical nature could not have been committed."
The privately run CHSLD — which stands for Centres d'hébergement de soins de longue durée — was permanently closed last November.
Samantha Chowieri, who is part of the Katasa Group — which owned Herron during the first wave — is the last person scheduled to testify. The company declined to comment on Tuesday.
With files from Alison Northcott