Group gathers to draw attention to impact of COVID-19 policies on long-term care residents

About 20 people gathered in Charlottetown this afternoon to draw attention to the struggle of seniors in P.E.I’s long-term care facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘They may be protecting them from COVID-19, but they're not protecting them from anything else’

Organizer Colleen Van Westerneng, right, pictured here with sisters Cheryl Gotell, left, and Norma Darrach. Van Westerneng says her mother has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 measures in long-term care homes. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

About 20 people gathered in Charlottetown Tuesday afternoon to draw attention to the struggle of seniors in P.E.I's long-term care facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a move to protect the most vulnerable, P.E.I. locked down community and long-term care facilities in the early days of the pandemic, ending all visitations. Visits have since resumed, but with precautions — like maintaining physical distancing or wearing PPE. 

"When we had the opportunity where COVID-19 was non-existent in the province of P.E.I. … we were hopeful that there'd be some opportunity to have the buildings opened so that residents could have access to the family," said event organizer Colleen Van Westerneng.

"We were quite disappointed when the government made a decision to open it up to seasonal visitors. While we respect anyone that comes to our province, we did feel like the rights of our long-term care residents weren't put first."

Premier Dennis King has previously said he did not feel the two issues were connected, but he knows the last few months have been difficult for Island seniors and patients.

'Lack of access to her family'

Van Westerneng was a long-term care worker for 30 years and is now retired. Her mother is 88 years old and lives in a long-term care facility.

"The impact that it's had on my mother … who has been significantly impacted, who is terribly, terribly upset … by the lack of access to her family," she said. 

"She's described this experience as being someone who was in jail because she has no access to her family."

Officials confer outside Whisperwood Villa in Charlottetown on July 5 after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. Staff and residents were immediately tested and then retested later in the week. All results were negative. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Van Westerneng's mother is also visually impaired, and Van Westerneng said alternative methods of connection like video chatting offer her little comfort. 

Visits to long-term care facilities were reintroduced in June. Outdoor visits in designated areas were permitted as of June 1, and indoor visits as of June 26.

Other family members of people in long-term care have also previously raised questions over why the Atlantic bubble was taking place before loosening restrictions for those living in long-term care facilities on the Island.

81% of deaths 

P.E.I. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison and Health PEI chief of nursing Marion Dowling have emphasized the importance of protecting those in long-term and community care facilities during their daily and weekly briefings. 

A recent study found the proportion of Canadian COVID-19 deaths that have occurred in long-term care facilities is about twice the average of rates from other developed countries. 

From March to May, long-term care residents made up 81 per cent of all reported COVID-19 deaths in Canada.

Last week a worker tested positive at Whisperwood Villa, a privately-owned facility in Charlottetown. All other residents and staff were tested twice and all results were negative. 

To deprive those residents of their family in this time in their life, it's cruel from our position.— Colleen Van Westerneng

"While I think the government thinks they've made the best decision around protecting the residents, they may be protecting them from COVID-19, but they're not protecting them from anything else," said Van Westerneng.

She said the group is upset that the government has not engaged in a dialogue with residents and families to find out how they feel and what they want. 

"I don't know that they really understand the impact that this is having," she said.

Teach families about infection control measures

King and several other MLAs met the group outside the P.E.I. Legislature to speak with them and listen to their concerns. 

Van Westerneng said she wants to see more communication between government, families and residents living in long-term care to try to find ways to make safe in-person visits more accessible. 

"Long-term care is end of life and it could be end of life for two years, it could be end of life for five years, but the reality of it is to deprive those residents of their family in this time in their life, it's cruel from our position," said Van Westerneng.

Demonstrators walked from the Shaw Building in Charlottetown to the legislature where they were met by Premier Dennis King and MLAs. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Van Westerneng said she is not advocating to have facilities wide open, but she suggests that families could be taught to wear PPE and given greater access to those in facilities.

"They can be taught to follow infection control protocols. They can be accountable for that and they can work with the facilities that their loved ones are in. There are ways that this can happen safely."

Aside from the single case at Whisperwood, P.E.I. has not had any COVID-19 cases in any public or private long-term or community care facilities. 

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Nancy Russell and The Canadian Press


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