Email reveals Legault government knew about CHSLD Herron crisis earlier than thought
Premier defends how ministers responded to crisis, says they believed local health authority was on it
A newly surfaced email reveals the Legault government learned about the crisis at the Herron long-term care home in Montreal's West Island 10 days before the situation was made public by the Montreal Gazette in April 2020.
The email was filed into evidence at the end of the coroner's inquest into what occurred in the early days of the pandemic at the Herron, a privately run CHSLD (Centre d'hébergement de soins de longue durée).
It was sent to former health minister Danielle McCann and the minister responsible for seniors, Marguerite Blais.
At 8:11 p.m. on March 29, the assistant deputy minister for seniors, Natalie Rosebush, wrote an email to Blais's chief of staff, Pascale Fréchette with the word "URGENT" in capital letters in the subject line.
The email warned of a worrisome situation at CHSLD Herron, located in Dorval, Que., that had developed after one resident tested positive for COVID-19. When close-contact employees called the province's health hotline for advice, they were told to isolate themselves, the email says.
"The result is that there are almost no staff to take care of the 154 residents," the email says. "It is very problematic."
At 12:56 a.m., Fréchette forwarded the email to Blais and to Marjaurie Côté-Boileau, the minister's press secretary at the time.
3 workers for more than 130 residents
When workers from the local health authority, the CIUSSS Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, arrived at Herron on March 29, 2020, there were three employees caring for 133 residents, according to a report released later that year.
The residence was filled with a "nauseating odour of urine and feces" and unwashed dishes, the report said.
By then, at least 31 people had died. A total of 47 people died in the spring of 2020 at the Herron CHSLD, but precisely who is to blame for what transpired remains the subject of debate.
During a provincial inquiry into deaths in several seniors' residences led by Coroner Géhane Kamel late last year, lawyers representing both Herron and the CIUSSS offered different versions of what led to the dire situation. Kamel's final report is expected later this year.
Blais has repeatedly declined to say what she knew, and when. But her office issued a statement about this newly surfaced email, saying they believed the issue was being dealt with because the email also said the CIUSSS was taking over.
Blais says situation must be put into context
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Blais said it is important to put the situation into context. By the end of March, there were 25 residences experiencing outbreaks and then as of April 10, there were 274 outbreaks, she said.
She said it's not for her to judge whether the CIUSSS did its job, "but I can say that my cabinet and my office did its job."
"I did my job," she said. "I am very comfortable to tell you today, I am not ashamed of the work that I did."
She felt the CIUSSS was doing all that needed to be done, she said. And when asked if she lied, she said she would never do that.
"I felt like someone was taking care of the CHSLD Herron because it was the CIUSSS of the West Island of Montreal. They were doing their job."
McCann has said publicly that she didn't know about the extent of the crisis until it was in the news.
'We had thousands of workers missing': Legault
In a statement, the government says it knew of a staffing shortage but not the scope of the situation.
Answering reporters' questions on Tuesday, Premier François Legault defended McCann and Blais. Like Blais, he said they had all felt confident that the CIUSSS was handling the situation.
"Because remember at the time, there were many problems in many CHSLDs," he said. "We had thousands of workers missing. So, it wasn't easy."
Legault said he does not remember being aware of how bad things were at the Herron on March 30 and only remembers learning about the full extent of the situation when the article was published in the Montreal Gazette.
When it comes to that March 30 email marked "URGENT," there's nothing new, he said, and it was submitted to the coroner.
with files from Radio-Canada, Cathy Senay and Kate McKenna