Nova Scotia

Handling of COVID-19 outbreak at Northwood dominates question period

Premier Iain Rankin says the government is focused on continuing to keep COVID-19 out of long-term care homes while putting more money into the sector to improve care and facilities.

Opposition renews calls for public inquiry, premier says government focusing on preventing similar tragedies

The Centre building at the Northwood long-term care complex in Halifax was ravaged by COVID-19. (Photo illustration by Dave Irish/CBC)

Nova Scotia's opposition members hammered the government Thursday during question period over its handling of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak last year at a Halifax long-term care home.

Premier Iain Rankin repeatedly avoided answering direct questions about the outbreak that sickened 345 residents and staff, including 53 residents who died, during the first wave of the pandemic.

The questions came on the same day The Coast published a comprehensive look at the outbreak, including comments from some people who worked at the site and family members of residents who continue to have concerns about the handling of the situation.

Some families have launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against the home and the provincial government.

Rankin said the focus now is on learning from what happened and keeping COVID-19 out of long-term care homes moving forward, something that's been achieved since the Northwood outbreak. 

Long-term care a priority, says Rankin

He said the government is acting on recommendations arising from a review into the outbreak

"We can go back and look at reports and what we could have done better, and that's what we're doing," Rankin told reporters at the legislature following question period.

Rankin said the recent budget prioritizes improvements to long-term care services, which include increased funding for staff and the creation of 236 new long-term care beds.

The premier promised further announcements related to the sector.

"It's very obvious we need a lot of capital into these centres that are over 50, some of them upwards of 100 years old," he said.

"That is at the feet of all governments of the past, including ours. It was chronically under-invested and that needs to change." 

Opposition leaders want public inquiry

There are about 1,500 people on the wait list for a long-term care bed in Nova Scotia. Unions and reports have repeatedly drawn attention to the difficulty attracting and retaining long-term care staff because of problems with low wages, inconsistent hours and a lack of benefits.

Opposition leaders renewed their calls Thursday for a public inquiry into what happened at Northwood.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said Rankin "is missing a zero on the number of beds he's building." 

"The lessons have not been learned and it's not going to go away," he said.

Houston said the families of those who died at Northwood are owed more answers than they've received to date and an inquiry can help with that closure.

Previous warning signs

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the Liberal government decided not to move forward with plans on the books for more long-term care beds after coming to power in 2013, and made sector funding cuts in 2015 and 2016.

He said the government was alerted at the time to the potential implications for things such as infectious disease control and the effects on viable care.

Burrill said there needs to be a public airing of a range of questions — not just about Northwood, but the entire long-term care system.

"I think we need to gauge the full weight of the fact that what was needed to be known was known before COVID," he said.

Although the recommendations of the Northwood report were made public, the comments and information that went into creating those recommendations were not.

The premier said he believes government reports should be released to the public, but he did not know what considerations related to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act went into determining what was and was not released last fall.