Confusion, fear as workers in Quebec seniors' homes brace for long fight against COVID-19

As the number of long-term care homes with COVID-19 cases surpasses 500 in Quebec, the people who work at those institutions are bracing for a long fight.

With confirmed cases in more than 500 locations, staff at long-term care facilities are being put to the test

Residents at the EVA seniors' home in Lavaltrie, Que., try to catch some sun on their balconies. More than 500 long-term care institutions have reported cases of COVID-19 in Quebec. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

These days, Mehdi Ghadir is near-terrified of going to work at the private seniors' residence in western Montreal where he is an orderly. 

On Wednesday, Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, said the number of long-term care institutions with confirmed cases of COVID-19 has surpassed 500.

Seniors are known to be the demographic most at risk of dying from complications of COVID-19. In the long-term care institutions where many of them live in, they often share rooms.

Auxiliary nurses and patient attendants help residents with their hygiene and with meals  — all leaving both residents and workers particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. 

    Ghadir fears it's only a matter of time before the residence he works at is hit. Already, one orderly has tested positive and several are in preventive isolation, which has led to a significant staff shortage.

    Beyond that, he is haunted by the notion that by going out into the world before and after work every day, he could potentially expose himself, residents and his wife to the novel coronavirus. Both he and his wife have underlying health issues, he says.

    "Really, I am confused. I don't know what I have to do. And all of my colleagues, it's the same.… It's really scary," Ghadir said over the phone, on his way to work the evening shift.

    "There is nobody else to care for them. If I don't go, who will feed them? Who will clean them?"

    Bracing for an outbreak

    Ghadir says the long-term home where he works is managing as best it can, but he foresees mask and glove shortages if he and his colleagues face an outbreak. Plus, the staff shortage has necessitated working lots of overtime.

    Marguerite Blais, Quebec's seniors' minister, has promised a $20an-hour raise for orderlies, but Ghadir, who earns $14 an hour, says it's not enough to make a difference, given the risks he and his co-workers are facing.

    Earlier this week, the province made it mandatory to isolate all residents of long-term care homes in their rooms. But some family members worry that measure has come too late.

    The first personn to die of COVID-19 in Quebec was 82-year-old Mariette Tremblay, who lived at Résidence EVA in Lavaltrie, in the Lanaudière region. Officials say a family member had visited her after returning from a trip abroad. 

    Now that residence counts nearly 40 confirmed cases. Six people living there have died.

    In the Eastern Townships, a similar outbreak started at the Manoir Sherbrooke after a man returned from a trip and visited his mother who is a resident there, according to the region's public health director, Dr. Alain Poirier.

    Rukayah Amin-Gondah works in administration at a seniors' home in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. She says workers at her institution are worried about catching COVID-19 or transmitting it to their families. (Submitted by Rukayah Amin-Gondah)

    Eleven people at Manoir Sherbrooke later tested positive for the coronavirus, and six were sent to hospital. 

    Finding ways to push through

    Rukayah Amin-Gomdah, who works in administration at the Boulevard Résidence in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, sees how the statistics are affecting her colleagues. 

    "I would be lying if I said that there was no panic," Amin-Gomdah said.

    "I have some of my co-workers doing double shifts, triple shifts. And we're talking about everybody — not just the [orderlies] and the nurses. We're talking about people who work in the kitchen, people who clean, people who do the laundry."

    Dale McCartney is finding ways to motivate herself and her colleagues at CHSLD Bayview in Pointe-Claire, as she says they are the 'front-line defence team' against COVID-19. (CBC)

    Amin-Gomdah says they are doing their best to keep morale up for the residents, but "it's a little overwhelming when you come home, and it's just you and your thoughts. But we're pushing through."

    Dale McCartney, who has worked as an orderly at CHSLD Bayview in Pointe-Claire for 29 years, is using her experience to reassure colleagues who are feeling stressed and anxious. 

    McCartney's workplace hasn't had any cases among residents, but one employee tested positive and another is suspected to have the coronavirus.

    She is all too aware "it only takes on resident or one person to come in with it, and then it spreads."

    She's been keeping her head up, though. 

    "I've had cancer, and I've worked through the ice storm. I've worked through SARS, and I said: we can do this."

    She says she's proud to do the work she does in a moment like this, calling it "a war — and we're the front-line defence team."

    Still, at the end of some work days, McCartney has felt the stress weighing on her. 

    Tuesday, she drove home and saw a father and son drawing a chalk rainbow on their driveway. 

    "I smiled because I thought, 'Wow.' It brightened my day," she said.

    "These little things, they cheer us up, you know. They make us feel better."

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