Nova Scotia·Point of View

We got our mother out of Northwood. What's needed now is a public inquiry

The daughter of a former resident of the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax says provincial officials moved too slow to prevent the COVID-19 "disaster," which has claimed the lives of 52 residents.

Provincial officials moved too slow to prevent COVID-19 'disaster' at Halifax nursing home, daughter writes

A paramedic walks around an ambulance at Northwood Manor, one of the largest nursing homes in Atlantic Canada with 585 residents, in Halifax on May 1. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

My 91-year-old mother, Ruth Heath, was recently a resident of the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax. 

My family and I would like to acknowledge and commend the staff of Northwood for their compassion and tireless commitment to providing care for vulnerable seniors like my mother before and during this pandemic.

They are the unsung heroes of this pandemic and deserve our respect, admiration and heartfelt thanks. We also thank the health-care providers from across the province who answered the call and stepped in to assist in the middle of a disaster as it was unfolding at Northwood.

Although the efforts of staff have been commendable, tragically, 52 Northwood residents have died of COVID-19. There are 52 families grieving the loss of their beloved family members, while many others have waited in a fearful state of helplessness to hear the fate of their loved one.

My family and I chose to remove our mother from Northwood in mid-April when it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Positive cases had increased tenfold in a week and we had been unable to connect with staff or our mother to get any news of what was happening in the facility.

We feel fortunate that we were able to take her out, even at tremendous personal and financial cost. My mother was cared for by family members for five weeks until we were able to find her a space in a private facility. We are heartsick for other families for whom this was not an option.

People came out with noisemakers and signs to celebrate Mother's Day at Northwood. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

I cannot agree with the recent comments of Northwood nurse practitioner Katy van Vulpen that the facility "has done everything it could to make sure appropriate precautions and interventions were put in place based on the information it had at the time." 

Perhaps if the outbreak at Northwood had occurred in January, or even early February, that may have been true. But by the time my family made the decision to remove our mother from Northwood on April 20, it was more than a month since a pandemic had been declared.

Governments and health authorities in every jurisdiction should have been well aware of the devastating impact this virus was having on older people in long-term care settings, and strategies for preventing or managing outbreaks, given what had happened in northern Italy, Washington state, Ontario and Quebec.

As noted by Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, in an article published in the Chronicle Herald on May 1, "Nova Scotia lagged in adopting two specific federal COVID-19 guidelines for long-term care homes – instructing workers to wear surgical masks and testing asymptomatic residents at outbreak sites." 

The article goes on to suggest that more timely adoption of these guidelines might have minimized the deadly COVID-19 epidemic at the Northwood nursing home. The failure to act in a timely and effective manner to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at Northwood cost lives.

Fifty-two residents of Northwood, Nova Scotia's largest long term care facility, have died because of COVID-19. (Robert Short/CBC)

While we are so thankful for the incredible individuals on the front lines of long-term care, we cannot turn a blind eye to the systemic inadequacies in a terribly broken system.

The catastrophe that has unfolded at Northwood sheds a light on the challenges facing the long-term care system in delivering high-quality care, not just in Nova Scotia but across the country.

For example, many staff in long-term care facilities like Northwood are undervalued, receive low pay and lack job security. This makes it hard to recruit staff, and many facilities face staffing shortages on the best days, never mind during a pandemic.

There has also been a lack of investment in physical infrastructure, meaning that many residents across the system have to share rooms.

We must recognize and learn from the crisis that happened at Northwood. In an article published in the Globe and Mail on May 4, Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor emeritus, said "a public inquiry may be the only way to get answers that can change policy around how future pandemics are handled at nursing homes." 

I implore all family members of residents of Northwood and others who care about this issue to demand a public inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak at Northwood.

We must not lose this opportunity to demand change in the long-term care system, not just in Nova Scotia but across Canada.

Let the deaths of all residents of long-term care facilities across this country be the rallying cry for change that is far too long overdue.

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