Heat wave shows plan needed 'right now' to keep care homes cool

The family of a man living at one Ottawa long-term care facility says last week's heat wave makes it clear immediate action is needed to keep care home residents cool during the pandemic.

Extendicare Medex home has no air conditioning in resident's rooms

Residents at the Extendicare Medex home on Baseline Road in Ottawa are currently confined to their rooms — which do not have air conditioning — due to an outbreak of COVID-19. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

The family of a man living at one Ottawa long-term care facility says last week's heat wave makes it clear immediate action is needed to keep care home residents cool during the pandemic.

The Extendicare Medex home on Baseline Road has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak since Thursday, July 9, with one resident and one employee having tested positive, according to Ottawa Public Health.

Under public health guidelines, that means that residents must stay in their rooms — and at the Extendicare home, those rooms have no air conditioning.

"There has to be something done immediately," said Anna Lyall, whose brother-in-law lives there, and told her that on Friday the temperature in his room reached nearly 38 C. 

In a letter sent to family members before the outbreak and shared with CBC, the owners of the privately-run home said they once attempted to put in air conditioning units in the rooms, but the building's older infrastructure couldn't handle it. 

Lyall doesn't blame the home and praised the staff, whom she also worries for in the heat.

But the province needs to look at finding solutions now, she said, rather than later.

"There has to be a plan on how to deal with this right now in the heat of this summer," she said. "We have to call in hospital staff to to assist with cooling off the residents. [Perhaps they] they have to purchase more fans. Something has to be done."

Premier's promise only a start, say advocates

Last week, Premier Doug Ford committed to legislating mandatory air conditioning in long-term care homes, vowing his government would "move forward rapidly."

The current legislation sets a minimum temperature of 22 C for long-term care homes, but no maximum. For facilities that aren't air conditioned, the Long-Term Care Homes Act stipulates they must provide at least "one separate designated cooling area for every 40 residents."

Updating the legislation is something senior's advocates like Laura Tamblyn Watts say should have been done long ago.

"We have been talking about the incoming heat waves since about April," said Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge.

WATCH: Ford vows to mandate air conditioning in long-term care homes

Premier Doug Ford says he will make air conditioning mandatory in long-term care homes after CBC's Lisa Xing first asked about the topic on Tuesday. 1:21

Given the evolving research around how COVID-19 spreads, it's not clear if temporary solutions are safe, Tamblyn Watts said.

"We are hearing significant confusion from long-term care homes, and from families and residents getting inconsistent information about whether fans and certain types of temporary air conditioning units can be used or not because of COVID concerns," she said.

There also needs to be more funding available to non-profit and city-run homes so that they can install air conditioning, Tamblyn Watts said.

For-profit homes — especially new ones — need to make it a priority, she added.

"I think a lot of Canadians have a very hard time reconciling the tens of millions of dollars of profits that are given out quarterly, with the reality of very frail, vulnerable seniors in isolation, sweltering in their rooms in excess of 30 degrees," she said.

Laura Tamblyn Watts, an advocate for older Canadians, says she's been hearing 'significant confusion' from long-term care homes over how to safely keep residents cool during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

AC might not be the answer: architect

Toon Dreessen, past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects and president of the Ottawa firm Architects DCA, said expensive air-conditioning systems may not be the way to go. 

"To put air conditioning into these properly means really understanding the building envelope. You're changing the dew point in the wall. You're changing the amount of energy that goes into the building," he told CBC Radio's All In A Day on Friday. 

While Dreessen said the Ontario government's intentions are good, mandating air conditioning may not work across the board — and energy conservation solutions may be just as effective.

"Some of the older facilities don't even have enough surplus energy capacity to run a fan, let alone an air conditioner," he said.

"If they don't have that, then calling for central air or air conditioning to be added isn't going to work."

Ottawa architect Toon Dreessen, seen here in June 2019, says it may make more sense for certain buildings — especially older ones — to use energy conservation methods to keep temperatures cool. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Home monitoring heat

In a statement, Extendicare Medex said it's working hard to keep residents safe.

"We limit the use of non-essential electrical devices during peak temperatures and have shifted laundry service to nights to keep cooling appliances functioning at optimal levels," wrote Cory Nezan, the home's regional director.

"We continuously monitor the temperatures in all care units and follow all Extendicare policies for hot weather conditions, including altered meal plans with more hydrating ingredients, increased fluids, loosened clothing, and removal of excess bedding."

About the Author

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.