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Ford faces blowback after military report reveals 'horrific' conditions at Ontario long-term care homes

Premier Doug Ford described a Canadian Armed Forces report on five long-term care homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic as "heartbreaking" and "horrific" on Tuesday, but stopped short of committing to a public inquiry.

Province saw a drop in number of new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, but testing remains far below target

The military has been deployed to nursing homes in Ontario and Quebec to reinforce workers overwhelmed by the illness, unable to keep up with residents' needs because of all the protective measures they need to take, or off work because they're ill themselves. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Cockroaches, rotten food, patients with ulcers left bed-bound, staff moving from unit to unit wearing contaminated gear.

Those are just some of the disturbing conditions detailed in a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) report made public Tuesday and based on the observations of its members at five Ontario long-term care homes deemed by the province to have required the most support.  

Over 1,675 troops have been brought in to backstop five long-term care homes in Ontario and a further 25 in Quebec over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The allegations at homes  — in Pickering, Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York and Brampton — paint an unsettling picture of residents being bullied, drugged and left for hours and days in soiled bedding.

Ontario officials were notified of the report by the federal government Sunday in a memo to the solicitor general grouping the concerns into either non-adherence or non-existence of policies, inadequate resources including trained staff and medical supplies, deficiencies in care home infrastructure and concerns about standards of care.

"It's heartbreaking, horrific, it's shocking that this can happen here in Canada. It's gut-wrenching, and reading those reports is the hardest thing I've done as premier," Ford said at a news conference Tuesday.

"There's going to be justice. There's going to be accountability," a visibly emotional Ford told the families of loved ones in care homes.

Speaking to reporters, Ford said Ontario has launched an investigation into the report's findings, referring one death to the coroner's office. Once a coroner's investigation is complete, he said, it will be up to police to determine if charges are in order "for neglect."

WATCH | Ford promises accountability following 'gut-wrenching' report:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is vowing to fix the province's long-term care system after the military issued a report containing practices he called "appalling" and "disgusting." 1:20

The Ministry of Long-Term Care will also be investigating "specific critical incidents referred to in the report," the province said in a news release.

The premier also thanked CAF members for bringing their concerns to light, calling on them to extend their mission for an additional 30 days.

Ford stops short of calling public inquiry

But the premier stopped short of committing to a public inquiry despite the concerns raised. Ontario has instead launched an independent commission to look into the system. Ford also didn't commit to the province taking control of long-term care homes in Ontario.

Asked outright if he failed seniors in Ontario, Ford replied no, saying that while he takes ownership of the crisis, his government inherited a broken system. 

Still, Ford reiterated Tuesday "the buck stops" with him.

The CAF report, dated May 20, states that its purpose is "to ensure that these observations do not go unnoticed by our chain of command, the Province of Ontario and most importantly at the individual [facilities] where efforts are currently underway..." 

At Hawthorn Place long-term care home in North York in particular, CAF members said they observed a "100 per cent contamination for equipment, patients and overall facility. 

"Nurses/PSW's are often observed not changing PPE for several hours while moving between numerous patient rooms. Equipment is seldom/ever observed to be disinfected but is used between [positive and negative] patients."

Ford offered a scathing view on the province's inspection system when asked why it took the military going into these five homes for problems to be revealed. He also called on the federal government for additional support, saying he believes the problems are more widespread than just the five homes deemed in April to have the most urgent need for military support.

"Yes, inspections happen and these folks come in there but it took the military to be there 24/7," the premier said, adding it's impossible to know the extent of the problems plaguing the system "until you live, breathe, eat it ... until you're there around the clock at night time and during the day."

The premier added he only saw the extent of the strain on palliative care when his own brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, fell out of his bed while in care.  

Groups say they've long been 'ringing the alarm bells'

However, several groups pointed out that problems inside long-term care homes have long gone unaddressed, despite pleas to the province.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing over 60,000 front-line health-care workers in Ontario said in a statement from its president, Sharleen Stewart, it has been "ringing the alarm bells throughout this entire crisis," and has "had to fight the provincial government every step of the way to ensure long-term care companies were keeping residents safe."

Stewart pointed to the province's decision to eliminate rules requiring full background checks for new hires and allowing for inspections to be conducted by telephone as part of "a recipe for disaster." The union also said it called for a public inquiry and criminal investigations in long-term care homes as early as May 5.

The Ontario Health Coalition said in a statement it has called on the Ford government "repeatedly" to intervene in homes where management is "negligent," and address a lack of PPE, critical staffing shortages, infection control, and workplace safety.

"We are beyond frustrated," said the coalition's executive director Natalie Mehra.

"Thousands of staff and residents alike have been infected with COVID​​​-19, almost 1,500 residents and staff have died, yet we are still waiting for a coherent coordinated plan from Ontario's government to intervene actively in long-term care homes with outbreaks."

WATCH | 'Most heart-wrenching report I have ever read in my entire life': Ford:

Doug Ford promises accountability and justice after the report describes 'extremely troubling' conditions in the homes. 1:26

The group also listed a set of "immediate measures" it wants the province to implement, including many of the items above, as well as ramping up testing to the province's full capacity, transferring residents from homes in crisis to hospitals where possible, and bringing in family members and retired nurses as soon as possible to help with care.

On that final point, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said Tuesday that he is continuing to look at when family members can be allowed into care homes but that the concern remains how to do so without putting residents and staff at further risk of COVID-19 — given that the virus is still being spread through the community.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association also commented, with CEO Donna Duncan saying in a statement, "Ontario's long-term care homes have been clear about the dire situation on the front-lines of this unprecedented fight against COVID-19. The virus has exacerbated systemic issues, like the longstanding staffing challenges, as it impacts homes in varying degrees."

The association called on the province to implement "urgently needed" interim solutions such as additional personal protective gear, rapid testing, additional funding, human resources flexibility and support from other health care providers.

The Ontario Personal Support Workers Association, which represents 41,000 PSWs across the province, said in a statement on the CAF report, "We have been working through these difficult conditions for years.

"The lack of PPE and leadership we seek [and] rely on through management and our supply chain have diminished and not been provided in some cases at all," the association said in a statement, adding the time for a self-regulatory body for Ontario PSWs is "now."

Prime minister calls report 'deeply disturbing'

Speaking about the report Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called allegations "deeply disturbing."

"We must, as a country, improve the situation in those care homes," Trudeau said.

"We are facing a situation that has clearly existed long before the pandemic in a number of long-term care homes. The support given to our seniors is not up to scratch," Trudeau added.

Nearly 77 per cent of total COVID-19-linked deaths in the province were residents in long-term care homes, according to the Ministry of Health. 

CAF members are currently deployed to the following long-term care homes in Ontario:

  • Orchard Villa in Pickering: 77 deaths (as of Monday).
  • Altamont Care Community in Scarborough: 52 deaths (as of Monday).
  • Eatonville in Etobicoke: 42 deaths (as of May 23).
  • Hawthorne Place in North York: 43 deaths (as of May 23).
  • Holland Christian Homes Grace Manor in Brampton: 11 deaths (as of Monday).

287 new COVID-19 cases reported today

The news comes as Ontario reported 287 additional cases of COVID-19 this morning, a welcome drop after five straight days of new daily cases over 400.

The 1.1 per cent increase in total cases marks a departure from figures seen over the last two weeks, when growth rates have generally hovered between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent. 

The relatively low number of new cases confirmed today, however, comes as testing levels in the province remain well below the benchmark of 16,000 per day.

Ontario's network of labs processed just 9,875 tests since its last update, less than half of its 20,000 daily processing capacity. The backlog of tests waiting to be processed sits at 6,961.

The new instances — the fewest reported on a single day since March 31 — bring the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province since the outbreak in late January to 26,191. Of those, 76.2 per cent, or 19,958, are resolved. 

The cumulative count also includes 4,485 confirmed cases among health-care workers. 

The Greater Toronto Area continues to account for the majority of cases, slightly more than 65 per cent. During his daily briefing Monday, Premier Doug Ford suggested that certain areas of Brampton, north Etobicoke and Scarborough are currently "hot spots" for the novel coronavirus, though he didn't get any more specific.

During question period Tuesday morning, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should make that information available to the public immediately.

"Can the premier explain how families are supposed to know whether they're actually in any of these hot spots if the government refuses to share that information?" she said, referencing a CBC News story about the issue.

In response, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is waiting to outline its full testing strategy, rather than revealing information in "bits and pieces."

The ministry says it has data on case numbers narrowed down to particular postal codes, but has so far declined to release that information publicly. 

Watch: An emergency room doctor welcomes expanded testing in Ontario

'I think the point of testing now is to basically find out what the hot spots are,' says Dr. Nour Khatib. It's also key to know why they are happening, she says. 6:48

Ontario's official death toll grew by 21 and now stands at 2,123. Data compiled directly from regional public health units, however, puts the current toll at at least 2,219 as of Tuesday evening.

14 CAF members contract COVID-19 in Ontario

Meanwhile, the Canadian Forces said today that some 36 members working in long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec have now become sick with COVID-19.

That's up from 28 cases of the novel coronavirus among those troops less than a week ago.

The military has been deployed to nursing homes in the two provinces to reinforce workers overwhelmed by the illness, unable to keep up with residents' needs because of all the protective measures they need to take, or off work because they're ill themselves.

Much of their work includes tasks such as food service and moving and maintaining equipment, with some medical staff also serving in the homes.

Fourteen of the military members with COVID-19 are in Ontario and 22 of them are in Quebec.

Read the full Canadian Armed Forces report into the state of five Ontario long-term care homes:

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With files from Shanifa Nasser, Lucas Powers, CBC News and The Canadian Press

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