'It didn't make sense': nurse told police Herron was 'deserted' even after health authority stepped in

A June 2020 recording of a police interview with a nurse was evidence at the coroner’s inquiry into deaths in seniors’ residences during the pandemic’s first wave but was not made public.

Nurse volunteered to help a week after things were allegedly 'under control'

A woman prays in front of Résidence CHSLD Herron on April 13, 2020. A total of 47 people died at the long-term care facility that spring. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Herron long-term care facility was still "deserted" more than a week after the local health authority claimed that everything was under control, newly released evidence suggests.

Sophie Caron, the head nurse of the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the Lakeshore General Hospital in Montreal's West Island, visited the Herron after the local health agency, the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, claimed everything was being handled.

A June 2020 recording of a police interview with Caron, obtained by Radio-Canada, was evidence at the coroner's inquiry into deaths in seniors' residences during the pandemic's first wave but had not been made public.

"We're ensuring everyone's safety," the head of the CIUSSS, Lynne McVey, texted a provincial government official on March 29.

But when Caron arrived on April 7, she said there were only five employees caring for nearly 150 people, including her own mother. No one from the CIUSSS was present, she said.

A total of 47 people died at the Herron CHSLD during the spring of 2020. A report released that year said the residence was filled with a "nauseating odour of urine and feces" and unwashed dishes. 

"It didn't make sense. Not in Quebec. Not here," an emotional Caron can be heard saying on the police recording.

Nurse describes chaotic attempt at care

On April 6, Caron said she received a call for help from Dr. Nadine Larente, a doctor at the CIUSSS.

Larente told Caron the CIUSSS had taken control of Herron but that only those who volunteered were going to the care home, and that barely anyone had stepped forward.

Larente hoped that Caron could go and see for herself what was happening, so she could then convince managers that their staff should go. Caron accepted, as it was one of the only ways she could get into the facility to see her mother.

Caron went to Herron on April 7, after her own shift at the Lakeshore. She said the front desk was unstaffed and it took several minutes to locate anyone who worked there.

Caron said one nurse was going from room to room wearing the same personal protective equipment. Another, who had never worked at Herron before, was distributing medication without knowing who was supposed to receive what.

A police recording with a nurse who visited the facility alleges things were still dire at the facility, more than a week after the local health authority claimed things were under control. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Caron said she was "scared" of what she would find walking through the long-term care facility. She saw at least one resident who was severely dehydrated and another who was hooked up to an empty oxygen tank.

As she tried to help a dying patient, Caron said she called the doctor who was supposed to be following the seniors at the facility. The doctor didn't know what to do either and agreed to prescribe whatever she asked for.

She then learned that no doctor had been to the home in more than five days.

Meanwhile, Caron's mother's condition deteriorated. She tested positive for COVID-19, and on April 8, was taken by ambulance to the Lakeshore.

One of the nurses begged Caron to stay on at Herron, but Caron said she had to be with her mother, who later died.

"It felt like I was abandoning them," Caron said through tears.

At least 31 died after CIUSSS stepped in

Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer representing some of the families of residents who died, said the central issue right now is who is accountable for what happened.

He said the early narrative was that the private owners of the Herron residence had failed in their duty to provide basic care.

"That is not at all the reality of what we learned," he said.

Recordings, recently made public, show that the owners of CHSLD Herron repeatedly asked for the government's help, resorting to calling a public information line because they said the CIUSSS wasn't answering the phone.

"There was the notion that once the CIUSSS took control of that situation, that these people would be protected … that there would be some aggressive, decisive steps taken to ensure the security of these people who were already in a severe state of neglect," Martin-Ménard said. 

"But that is not what happened."

Martin-Ménard said the coroner's inquiry showed that only two residents had died before the CIUSSS stepped in on March 29. Another 31 died before the situation at Herron was revealed in a report by the Montreal Gazette on April 10, he explained.

Moira Davis's father, Stanley Pinnell, was one of 47 residents who died at the privately run CHSLD. She is clear about who she thinks is responsible.

"Lynne McVey sending [a message] saying everything was under control was a blatant lie, because it wasn't," Davis said.

Moira Davis with her dad Stanley Pinnell in 2016. Davis said the idea that the CIUSSS did its best during the crisis was 'absolute garbage.' (Submitted by Moira Davis)

In a statement to CBC News, the CIUSSS said it didn't have proper power to intervene until it was granted special powers on April 7. The text message, saying everything was under control, was to signal that "the residents had been fed, changed and put to bed by the CIUSSS team," the statement said.

It also said it deployed "at least 105" people and resources to the home from March 30 to April 5.

At the time, McVey had said the CIUSSS had done its best to provide for the residents.

"For them to say they were doing their best is absolute garbage. They weren't doing their best," Davis said.

Opposition demands accountability

Health Minister Christian Dubé, who was not health minister at the time, said Thursday he wants to see the result of the coroner's inquiry before taking action.

Speaking to reporters, Premier François Legault also asked Quebecers to be patient.

"[Coroner Géhane Kamel] already asked all the questions to Ms. McVey. She asked all the questions to the employees of the CHSLD Herron. So please: wait," he urged. "Soon we'll get the report and we'll have all the conclusions."

"I feel like we're just searching for someone to blame," said Marguerite Blais, the minister responsible for seniors.

But Québec Solidaire health critic Vincent Marissal said the CAQ government is dodging its responsibility.

"[Blais] saying it's not me, I did all I could, I was working day and night — well if she was working day and night, basically, she was doing the wrong thing."

Liberal MNA Enrico Ciccone, who represents the district where Herron is located, said he saw the conditions there first-hand. Ciccone says Danielle McCann, the health minister at the time, failed to protect vulnerable citizens.

"I was there. Why didn't the minister ask the cavalry in her ministry, and say: 'let's go there and fix it and make sure nobody else has died?'"

"We still have no answers," he said.

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Thomas Gerbet, with files from Cathy Senay and Jennifer Yoon