Ottawa

Almonte nursing home ignored pleas for early intervention, families say

Relatives of residents at Almonte Country Haven, where 28 people have died of COVID-19 since April, say the company that runs the home ignored their persistent pleas to bring in outside help to deal with the outbreak.

Relatives urged Almonte Country Haven, where 28 residents died, to bring in outside help to deal with outbreak

Kim Narraway, whose sister is a resident of Almonte Country Haven, says the facility needed more staff to adequately deal with the pandemic. 0:43

Families of residents at Almonte Country Haven, where 28 people have died of COVID-19 since April, say the nursing home's owners dismissed their early and frequent pleas to bring in outside help to deal with the outbreak.

By the end of March, COVID-19 had already arrived at the long-term care home in Almonte, Ont., about 50 kilometres southwest of downtown Ottawa. Within a few days, 10 residents were dead from the respiratory illness. Eventually, 72 of the home's 82 residents would test positive for COVID-19.

In early April, Mae Wilson, a 93-year-old former nurse from northern Ontario, was showing no signs of the virus, and her family wanted it to stay that way.

The military were ready, willing and able to come in and help with the staffing issues with professionally trained people.- Grant Wilson, son of deceased resident Mae Wilson

"Please take the lead on this and be the person that drives a turn around," wrote her son, Grant Wilson, in a letter dated April 11 to Patrick McCarthy, CEO of OMNI, the company that operates Almonte Country Haven. "My mother is relying on you, as are the remaining residents of the home and their families. Please do something more aggressive than what you are doing now." 

Exactly one month after her son wrote that letter, Mae Wilson died from COVID-19.

"The hospitals are underwhelmed ... the military were ready, willing and able to come in and help with the staffing issues with professionally trained people," Wilson told CBC this week.

McCarthy declined CBC's request for an interview, citing "the dynamic nature of this pandemic, and our need to support our homes."

Mae Wilson, a former nurse, contracted COVID-19 in early May, 2020. She later died from the respiratory illness. (Submitted by Grant Wilson/Karen Thompson)

Conflicting reports on staffing

Grant Wilson, along with families of other residents, complained about inadequate staffing at Almonte Country Haven. According to the union representing many of the workers there, staffing shortages were a chronic problem even before the pandemic.

"As this crisis blew up, particularly in Almonte, we would have appreciated any support that could have happened there for our members for sure," said Tim Deelstra of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Kitchen staff were doing the work of personal support workers, Deelstra said.

According to the home's administrator, managers and other workers were "redeployed" to different roles, and some staff members worked extended hours.

"Throughout the outbreak, we have maintained staffing levels at or above the staff-to-resident ratio that is required in Ontario long-term care homes," said Caroyln Della Foresta.

Despite their concerns, several families also spoke about the compassion and kindness of workers at the home, including those who sat with residents as they died.

"They were very kind and very respectful always and worked very hard, but I think there's not enough people to actually provide the care that they should be getting," said Kim Narraway whose sister, Lee Narraway, 71, is a resident at Almonte Country Haven. 

Kim Narraway says her sister, Lee Narraway, went about five weeks without a bath or having her hair washed. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'At our wit's end'

As the outbreak continued into April and the death toll climbed, the families sent more letters to OMNI's parent company, public health officials and politicians.

David Coyle and his sisters were unable to visit their mother, Eileen Coyle, 97, for the last month of her life. He wrote to OMNI's CEO on April 19 asking for reinforcements to be sent in.   

"My sisters and I are at our wit's end in our efforts to find the right words, the best actions to raise the alarm about the high infection rates and numbers of deaths at OMNI Health Care-Almonte Country Haven," Coyle wrote. His mother died on April 28 of natural causes. 

Patrick McCarthy wrote back: "I understand that deployment of medically trained military staff by government may be a consideration, and in worst case scenarios field hospitals or equivalent may be possibilities if an acute care surge overwhelms hospitals."

In some of the home's shared rooms, only a curtain separated residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 from residents who weren't yet showing symptoms of the respiratory illness

Kim Narraway's sister shared a room and bathroom with two other women, including one who had COVID-19. Eventually, Lee Narraway also contracted the illness, but has since recovered. 

Flowers and signs are placed outside windows at Almonte Country Haven on May 25, 2020. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Basic care lacking

Basic care was also lacking during the peak of the crisis, Kim Narraway said. 

While residents of long-term care homes are supposed to receive two baths per week, Narraway said her sister went without proper bathing for weeks.

"As of March 28 she had no personal care of that kind until I believe it was in the first part of May. I think just before her birthday on May 2 they actually washed her hair," Narraway said. 

The home's administrators said that while tub baths were not permitted during the outbreak, each resident did get daily "bed baths" and "hair care."

A Lanark Country paramedic arrives at Almonte County Haven in April while staff stand by. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Oversight and responsibility

Multi-bed wards are a problem when it comes to controlling infections, according to Dr. Paula Stewart, medical officer of health for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit.  

"Fifty per cent of [Almonte County Haven's] rooms have four-bed rooms. If you weren't able to move people, then pulling the curtain across created a barrier," Stewart said. "I think the challenge was that we learned about the virus as the outbreak was unfolding and learned how to adapt with it."

With no active cases inside the home and now dozens of empty beds, OMNI says it will consult with public health officials about its plans for operations after the outbreak is over. 

For Grant Wilson, the frustration and sense of futility have given way to anger.

"I really want people to feel uncomfortable about the way they've treated our seniors. Not just my mom, all of them. They're not living up to our expectations, and somebody needs to shine the light on this." 

Unlike other long-term care homes hit hard by COVID-19, Almonte Country Haven did not call in extra outside help for their staff despite repeated calls from residents' families. The CBC's Julie Ireton has been looking into this. 8:06

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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