From staff of 170 to 50, Laval long-term home seeks help as COVID-19 tsunami sweeps through

Some staff are staying home because they are scared for themselves or their families. Others are choosing to work at other facilities, such as hospitals, that pay more per hour now that public health have barred staff from moving between facilities.

Les Loggias Villa Val des Arbres got first case just last week, but now it is in serious trouble

Les Loggias Villa Val des Arbres is short 120 staff members despite the administration's best effort to find workers willing to fill positions ranging from janitor to nurse. (CBC)

On Wednesday, as Premier François Legault issued another plea for help, asking medical doctors to do the work of nurses and orderlies in desperately short-staffed seniors' homes, one long-term care residence in Laval said it has hit rock-bottom.

The first case of COVID-19 surfaced on April 7 at Loggias Villa Val des Arbres, and in the week since then, 14 residents and seven employees have tested positive.

The CIUSSS de Laval, the regional health agency that oversees the privately owned establishment, put 42 staff members in quarantine last week, and that was just the beginning, said Pierre Bélanger, the co-president of the company that runs Val des Arbres.

The residence has gone from about 170 workers, including nurses, patient attendants, janitors, cooks, to roughly 50 full- and part-time workers to fill shifts around the clock, seven days a week.

It's not just quarantine keeping workers home. Some staff are not showing up because they are scared for themselves or their families, Bélanger said. Others are choosing to work at higher-paying facilities such as hospitals, as public health directives now prevent health-care workers from working at more than one institution, for risk of spreading the virus.

Still others are home sick, he said, and now "we don't offer the service that we are supposed to offer our residents."

The institution has 120 residents who need constant care and another 48 who are autonomous or semi-autonomous.

All the residents and staff are in the process of being tested for COVID-19, Bélanger said, and he expects a "tsunami" of positive results by Monday.

"I am scared for next week," he said. 

Bélanger has been buying ads and reaching out to nursing schools in search of qualified workers. 

Pierre Bélanger, co-president of Les Loggias Villa Val des Arbre, has been working from home during the pandemic to avoid getting sick, but he's been putting in long hours trying to hire staff. (CBC)

He said he has all the protective equipment needed, including masks and face shields, and he is paying plenty of overtime, on top of the $4 hourly top-up offered by the province.

He has asked the CIUSSS de Laval for help, he said, but he's far from the only one who is overwhelmed by the situation as COVID-19 sweeps through seniors' residences across Quebec.

Legault pleas for help

"We are deploying more professionals from the hospitals to the residences, but we're still lacking staff," Legault said earlier this week. "I'm asking everybody available, every health worker to come forward and help us."

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu indicated her government, too, is trying to find help: her department has identified around 1,000 French-speaking volunteers who had the training necessary to support staff at long-term care homes in Quebec.

This is something that Bélanger is open to. He's been working 20 hours a day in search of a solution and is ready to take any help he can get, he said.

It's time for change, union says

The problem at Les Loggias Villa Val des Arbres starts much higher up, said Jeff Begley, president of the CSN-affiliated federation of health and social services, which represents about 5,000 patient attendants (préposés aux bénificiares) at seniors' homes across Quebec.

"In a time of crisis, we're definitely not prepared," he said. "That's obvious."

People like Bélanger are trying to do everything possible to help residents, but the health-care system's lack of readiness has led to catastrophic results, said Begley.

"It can't continue like it's been continuing for the last several years," he said.

A funeral home worker removes a body from the CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval on Tuesday. The home currently has the highest number of cases of COVID-19 in the province. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Begley puts the blame on the reorganization of health care which began in 2015, establishing the regionalized administrative system of Integrated Health and Social Services Centres (CISSS) and Integrated University Health and Social Services Centres (CIUSSS).

The boards of individual institutions used to meet monthly to discuss the global situation and to develop solutions to problems as they arose, Begley said. 

That's no longer happening under the current system, he said, and that's exacerbated by other problems, like two decades' of budget cuts and lax certification requirements for long-term care homes, which only need to have buildings that are up to code in order to be certified.

Regional health board stretched thin

The CIUSSS de Laval is shorthanded, too, as it struggles to respond to calls for help from residences.

Laval is currently home to the hardest-hit long-term care facility in the province, the CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée, which has more than 100 infected residents.

A CIUSSS de Laval spokesperson said the agency is actively trying to recruit new workers to meet the needs of all its long-term care homes.

When asked specifically about Les Loggias Vialla val des Arbes, the spokesperson was unable to provide an immediate response. 

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann has said many of the changes that public health has put in place in recent weeks, such as preventing workers from taking jobs at more than one facility, will likely become permanent protocol.

With files from Sudha Krishnan

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