Quebec ex-health minister under fire for focus on hospitals over long-term care

Quebec Premier François Legault and Danielle McCann, the former health minister, are facing growing criticism for their decision to prioritize hospitals over long-term care homes in the pandemic's first wave.

Danielle McCann pushes back, says health board officials were told to get ready in January 2020

Quebec's former health minister Danielle McCann on Wednesday shared a letter with reporters she said proved the province warned health boards about the pandemic in late January 2020. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Quebec Premier François Legault and Danielle McCann, the former health minister, are facing growing criticism for their decision to prioritize hospitals over long-term care homes during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A scathing report released Tuesday by Quebec's ombudsman, Marie Rinfret, found it took the government weeks to react to the crisis in long-term care homes, where most of the 3,890 deaths in the first wave took place.

McCann held a news conference Tuesday morning in the room where she, the premier and public health director once provided daily updates for the public and the media. 

McCann, now the minister of higher education, is being scrutinized for having failed to act sooner, with opposition parties requesting a debate on the matter in the National Assembly on Wednesday afternoon. 

It was a rare solo appearance by McCann, who paused before starting, saying, "I'm just getting settled."

"What is being said about me in the public sphere is concerning to me," she said.

Flowers and notes for loved ones are seen at a makeshift memorial in front of the CHSLD Herron seniors residence in April 2020 in Dorval, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

McCann shared a letter she said proved her ministry acted in late January 2020 to warn local health board officials to prepare for a new coronavirus. She noted that long-term care homes fall under the purview of those officials.

The three-page letter makes no mention of CHSLDs, the French acronym for long-term care facilities.

"We did everything in our power to prepare with the information that was at our disposal," McCann said. "I can assure you we prepared to the best of our knowledge, and did not spare our efforts."

The publication of the ombudsman report comes as a coroner's inquiry into the similar topic of what went wrong in long-term care homes has entered the phase in which it questions top officials on the role their policies played in the crisis. 

Both investigations have shed light on just how slow the government was to respond and increased criticism of government officials, like McCann, who were in charge at the time.

Reinforcements only arrived mid-April

The report by the ombudsman, released in full Tuesday, said seniors in long-term care had been "cast aside" while the government was distracted by beefing up hospital resources, based on crises in Europe.

Rinfret said the government's transfer of hundreds of seniors into long-term care homes, to free up hospital beds, had pushed the short-handed residences over capacity even before people started getting sick. 

When outbreaks began to occur in the homes around March 23, Rinfret said it took weeks for the government to react — only acknowledging the extent of the crisis and sending reinforcements to already decimated staffs by mid-April. 

By then, hundreds had died or been left for days at a time without basic care, such as hygiene, feeding and hydrating.

McCann said the Quebec government had followed the pandemic plan at its disposal, which advised elderly patients to be transferred out of hospitals to make space for a potential surge of patients infected with the virus. 

But Rinfret told reporters Tuesday what the government failed to do was to evaluate the risks of those transfers since it knew long-term care homes were under-resourced. 

Legault responded to criticism Tuesday, saying hindsight has made it easy for people to say things should have been done differently. 

At the time, he said, no one anticipated the pandemic would take on such magnitude. 

"We did not have any indication until March that there would be such a tragedy in the CHSLDs. We knew there was a virus and that there were problems in hospitals in Italy," Legault said.