'They let them die' at Quebec's worst-hit long-term care homes, union rep tells coroner

"If you had those same symptoms and showed up to the ICU, they would treat you," Gilles Tremblay told Coroner Géhane Kamel. "It's as if the human rights charter didn't apply to [long-term care residents]. They let them die."

Union rep for long-term care workers said he retired after 1st wave because of how difficult it was

CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée was the long-term care home with the highest death toll in Quebec, with 102 of its residents dying. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A kitchen employee at CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval emailed his union representative March 19, 2020 to request that N95 masks be given to staff in contact with COVID-positive patients after he became infected.

Soon after, most of the kitchen staff fell ill because of a lack of measures protecting them, the union representative told an inquest into the death of Anna José Maquet, a 94-year-old resident who died at the home on April 3, 2020.

The ongoing coroner's inquest is revisiting what happened in seniors' residences in Quebec in the spring of 2020, where more than 60 per cent of the province's COVID-19 deaths occurred. Others residents died of dehydration and neglect brought on by the chaos of infection and staff shortages. Almost half of all residences experienced an outbreak.

Gilles Tremblay, of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, explained Tuesday that for more than a month in the first wave, kitchen staff at long-term care homes in Laval were bringing the same food carts to residents with and without COVID-19 symptoms. 

"The red zone is the most dangerous place to be in the entire system and these workers didn't have the right protective equipment," Tremblay told Géhane Kamel, the coroner leading the proceedings at the Laval courthouse.

Tremblay said he repeatedly asked the local health board, the CISSS de Laval, for N95 masks to be handed out to staff in contact with COVID-positive patients after receiving that email. 

Finally, in February 2021, Quebec's public health research institute, INSPQ, recommended that N95 masks be worn by all staff interacting with COVID-positive patients. 

Tremblay says that's when he decided to retire. 

"I'd been struck, hurt by everything I saw and heard," he said. 

Tremblay also said that even before the pandemic, he had lobbied for years to stop staff from having to move between floors and facilities, and for them to all be given full-time jobs. 

He said he pushed even harder for the measures in early spring 2020 to help prevent further spread of COVID-19, and so workers could know patients better. But it never happened, he said. 

'You were sent to war without weapons'

Monday, an occupational therapist who volunteered to work in the home told the coroner leading the proceedings, Géhane Kamel, that she had to work on a different floor every day. 

As a result, they knew so little about the patients, the woman said, that "we didn't know if they were dead or not before we opened the door to their room."

A patient attendant testifying Tuesday morning before Tremblay told Kamel she and her colleague were left alone to care for 34 patients at one point. 

The woman, whose name is protected by a publication ban, cried as she told Kamel they ran out of time to wash and change them all. 

"You were sent to war without weapons," Kamel responded. 

She was one of the last people to see Maquet alive and said she appeared to be in good shape April 2, 2020, the day before she died. When the woman came in the next day, Maquet had been administered a cocktail of painkillers and sedatives. 

At that point, "it was only a question of time," the woman said.

As if human rights didn't apply to seniors, union rep says

Last week, the inquest heard there had been a ministerial directive not to send long-term care patients to hospital.

Several witnesses have testified that Sainte-Dorothée wasn't properly equipped for patients in acute respiratory distress and that they were often given morphine and Ativan, after which they usually died. 

Tremblay described what happened at Sainte-Dorothée and all of Quebec's worst-hit long-term care homes as "agicide."

"If you had those same symptoms and showed up at the ICU, they would treat you," Tremblay told Kamel. "It's as if the human rights charter didn't apply to [long-term care residents]. They let them die."

The goal of Kamel's inquiry is not to determine guilt, but to come up with recommendations to prevent future tragedies. Quebec's minister responsible for long-term care homes, Marguerite Blais, has pledged the government's co-operation during the investigation.

Six publicly regulated care homes — known as CHSLDs for Centres d'hébergement de soins de longue durée— and one private seniors' residence have been selected to be studied. One death is examined for each establishment.

In all, 102 patients died at CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée, the highest death toll for a long-term care home in the province; 211 residents and 173 employees were infected with COVID-19. 

With files from Lauren McCallum