Quebec premier says death toll at Montreal seniors' residence 'looks a lot like major negligence'
Public health authorities needed a court order to get residents' files from home owners
Quebec Premier François Legault said 31 people have died at a private Montreal-area seniors' residence since March 13 — five, so far, confirmed from COVID-19.
A sombre Legault, visibly pale as he spoke at Saturday's provincial news conference, cancelled a planned day off to deal with the fallout and share with the public a situation that he said "looks a lot like major negligence."
COVID-19 has infiltrated many of Quebec's CHSLDs, which is the French acronym for a seniors' residence or long-term care centre. But the toll at CHSLD Herron, located in the West Island suburb of Dorval, is especially grim.
Public health authorities said they first took stock of the situation at the Herron on March 29.
"We know that they were struggling to keep their ratios of staff to residents," said Lynne McVey, president and CEO of the public health agency for the western region of Montreal, at a news conference later Saturday afternoon.
"And they had asked us for help and we did provide, on some shifts, help to go into the residence to help care for their patients."
However, McVey said, the Herron's owners did not fully co-operate, a development she described as "extraordinary."
It was only after issuing two formal notices and an eventual court order under Quebec's Public Health Act that officials were able to see residents' medical files and information about family contacts, McVey said.
Katasa Development Group, based in Gatineau, owns CHSLD Herron and six other seniors' residences in Quebec.
The court order, issued on April 8, allows the regional health authority to "order any measure it deems necessary to prevent a threat to the health of the population from worsening," according to a statement released Saturday.
McVey said the situation at CHSLD Herron is now under control.
She said doctors and health-care workers from hospitals and clinics were now on hand at the residence and "fully operational and that the families of all residents of the Herron will be contacted today.
"Our teams are there now, and we're going to focus on the health of every resident."
'Like day and night'
That focus comes too late for Barbara Schneider. Her mother, Mary, had been admitted to CHSLD Herron about three weeks before the COVID-19 crisis took hold in Montreal.
Schneider said she visited her mother regularly until the residence closed to visitors because of the pandemic. After that, she had extreme difficulty making contact.
"Anybody that tried to reach her was unable to reach her," Schneider said. No receptionists answered the phone, emails did not receive replies and voicemail inboxes were always full.
On Thursday, a nurse on her second day on the job — Schneider thinks she was brought in as public health officials took over — finally helped her talk to her mother by video chat.
What she saw was shocking.
"She was frail. And she was so gaunt," Schneider said. "From when she went in to this last time was like day and night."
On Friday, Mary died at the age of 93. She had been infected with the coronavirus, but Schneider still isn't sure if that's what led to her death.
"To hear the horrible and deplorable conditions that went down, nobody deserves that," Scheider said. "I don't care if you're rich or poor. Nobody in this world should have to live like that."
Legault promises change
Conditions at CHSLDs have been an issue for years.
On Saturday, Legault said he was "not proud to see what is happening in our CHSLDs."
"We owe it to our elders, to take care of them with dignity," he said. "I want to give my word to Quebecers that we will take the necessary actions" to ensure Quebec's seniors are better cared for.
A public health investigation is ongoing, and Legault said the province has also requested a police investigation.
The province is now following up at the other private facilities that belong to Katasa Development Group, Legault said, and will verify conditions at all 40 private CHSLDs in the province immediately.
Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said she expects a report on those residences by the end of the day.
Legault said he would be "prudent" while investigations were under way, but followed with a candid assessment.
"Honestly, I think a lot of negligence took place at the residence," he said.
"I repeat, when the CIUSSS arrived on March 29, almost all the staff was gone," he said, referring to the regional health authority, which is now running the home. "So I think it looks a lot like major negligence."
With files from Kate McKenna