Ontario taking over 5 long-term care homes following 'gut-wrenching' military report

The province is taking over management at five Ontario long-term care homes in the wake of a scathing military report a day earlier, with Premier Doug Ford saying he won't hesitate to pull operators' licences or shut homes down if necessary.

Province reports 292 new COVID-19 cases, extends emergency orders to June 9

A bench decorated with flowers and signs is pictured outside of Orchard Villa Retirement Residence after several residents died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pickering, Ont., on May 26, 2020. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The province is taking over management at five Ontario long-term care homes in the wake of a scathing military report a day earlier alleging "horrific conditions" ranging from cockroaches, rotten food, a lack of hygiene and aggressive behaviour by staff against residents that caused some patients to choke or cry out for help for hours.

Premier Ford made the announcement Wednesday after what he called "gut-wrenching" conditions detailed in a report by the Canadian Armed Forces from five long-term care homes overrun by COVID-19.

Effective immediately, the province will assume control of four of five homes identified in the report including Eatonville in Etobicoke, Hawthorne Place in North York, Altamont Care Community in Scarborough, Orchard Villa in Pickering, plus a fifth: Camilla Care in Mississauga. That brings the total number of homes in the province's control to seven. 

The premier said the government will be conducting "extremely rigorous" inspections of those homes, as well as 13
others facing challenges managing COVID-19, and will be doing random spot checks across the province. Ford also said he won't hesitate to pull operators' licences or shut homes down if necessary.

Also announced Wednesday, an independent commission looking into the province's long-term care system will begin in July as opposed to in September, saying he would be willing to testify and would welcome his own offices being investigated if needed.

"In the face of those accusations, in the face of these problems, we will use every tool at our disposal," Ford said.

Asked if he would consider firing his minister of long-term care, Ford defended Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, saying he would not.

Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merilee Fullerton defended the province's track record of long-term care inspects questions during the government's daily briefing at Queen's Park. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Ontario has been under fire for a lack of comprehensive inspections in its long-term care system.

Fullerton said Wednesday there had been nearly 3,000 inspections done on the province's 626 homes since June 2018. The minister also called media reports about just nine homes in the province receiving full resident quality inspections (RQIs) last year "a red herring," saying a lack of staffing and the spread of COVID-19 were the real issues.

Inspections in long-term care homes fall primarily into two categories: complaint and critical incident inspections, which are reactive; and RQIs, which are broader and proactive. 

In the case of critical incident inspections, homes usually know in advance that they will come under scrutiny. RQIs are more comprehensive and unannounced.

A CBC News investigation in April found while most of the province's long-term care homes underwent RQIs from 2015 to 2017, that number fell to just over half in 2018 and only nine last year. 

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association said it supports provincial efforts to investigate any abuse or neglect, but also
called for the government to help in other ways.

"Inspections are important measures, however they do not provide the immediate resources and hands-on support homes urgently need on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, nor do they address long-standing systemic and structural issues exacerbated by the pandemic that threaten its sustainability," CEO Donna Duncan said in a statement.

The association wants to see a greater supply of personal protective equipment, more rapid testing, infection control help for older homes, more supports from hospitals and expedited capital funding.

New cases under 300 after days of surging numbers

Ontario reported 292 additional cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the second straight day with a growth rate in total cases of 1.1 per cent.

The numbers mark the first instance of consecutive days with less than 300 new cases each since late March. 

They come after Ontario saw a renewed surge in daily COVID-19 cases at the end of last week and over the weekend, which Health Minister Christine Elliott linked to families getting together for Mother's Day earlier this month. 

Wednesday's figures are accompanied by a relative jump in testing levels. Some 15,133 tests were processed yesterday — still below the province's benchmark of 16,000 per day and far fewer than the 23,000 the system has capacity to handle, but the most in a single day since since May 16.

The backlog of tests waiting to be processed grew to 11,817, meaning about 20,000 samples were added to the queue yesterday. 

Meanwhile, Ontario has extended its emergency orders to at least June 9, as some areas of the province continue to see a concerning number of new cases of COVID-19. 

That means that gatherings are still limited to up to five people. Outdoor playgrounds, public swimming pools and bars and restaurants — with the exception of takeout and delivery services — will all remain closed.

The state of emergency, which provides the legislative framework through which emergency orders are enacted, was first implemented in mid-March and is set to expire on June 2. Given today's announcement, it is likely that it too will be extended.

The newly confirmed infections bring the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in the province to 26, 483. Nearly 77 per cent of those are now resolved. Meanwhile, the total number of health-care who have contracted the novel coronavirus since the outbreak began in late January surpassed 4,500 today, accounting for about 17 per cent of all cases.

More than 75% of active cases in Greater Toronto Area

Ontario's official COVID-19 death toll grew by 32 and now sits at 2,155. Data compiled from regional public health units, however, puts the real current toll at at least 2,248 as Wednesday evening.

A CBC News analysis published this morning found that more than three-quarters of the active cases of COVID-19 currently listed in the province's database are found in the five public health units of Toronto, Peel, York, Durham and Halton regions.

Long-term care residents account for more than 77 per cent of all COVID-19-linked deaths in the province.

As part of its emergency orders, Ontario's revised rules around staff redeployments at the province's 630 long-term care homes will also remain in place. 

The premier was notably absent from question period at Queen's Park today, with Fullerton fielding a series of questions about the military report from the NDP.

Ford's office said he skipped question period because "the premier's primary focus right now is on ensuring we immediately address the situation documented in the CAF report that was released yesterday.

Ford has said Ontario has launched a "full investigation" into the allegations and will share the results with police so they can look into any possible criminal charges.

Four of the five homes are private, but Ford has said creating a fully public system wouldn't be feasible without financial help from Ottawa.

More than 200 residents alone have died at the five homes where the military has been assisting. Orchard Villa has now recorded 69 COVID-19 deaths, while Altamont has recorded 52 and Eatonville 42.

Hawthorne Place has seen 43 residents die — more than double the number of fatalities at the time military help was requested, and four more than Tuesday. Eleven residents have died at Grace Manor.

The military report said the province wants to transition military support from those homes where the situation has
stabilized, and is looking to Downsview Long-Term Care Centre as the next location. That home has seen 52 deaths, up from 40 last week.

Dentists, optometrists, health providers can gradually reopen

Dentists, optometrists and massage therapists are part of a list of health-care providers that the Ontario government says can gradually reopen following a months-long shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chiropractors, physiotherapists, psychologists, dietitians, denturists, and midwives are also included on the list released
Wednesday as part of a new order from the province's chief medical officer of health.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said while the order takes effect immediately, that does not mean that all health services will be available on May 27. 

"Health regulatory colleges are now in the process of developing guidance to ensure high-quality and safe clinical care that must be met before services can resume," she said. 

The provincial guidelines say providers must also comply with public health regulations and physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In mid-March, the province ordered all non-essential and elective health services to close or reduce operations as COVID-19 cases increased.

Under this new directive, the province is also asking regulatory colleges to provide advice on which services can be provided virtually. The province said the order will also allow hospitals to continue to develop and finalize plans to resume scheduled surgeries.

Toronto unveils postal code data

Also Wednesday, the City of Toronto made public detailed postal code data showing where the city's greatest concentrations of COVID-19 are located. 

The province has said it can measure COVID-19 hotspots by postal code, but has so far declined to make that information public, saying doing so could have a stigmatizing effect. 

At his weekly news conference on Wednesday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown called on the province to release that information as soon as possible "so residents know where there are areas of greater concern and areas where the virus seems to be circulating in the community."

Hayley Chazan, spokesperson for the provincial minister of health, previously told CBC News Ontario's hardest-hit regions are in Toronto, Peel Region and Windsor-Essex County, but would not specify further.

Ford elaborated slightly Monday afternoon, saying "parts" of those regions were most affected. He also mentioned parts of Brampton, north Etobicoke and Scarborough.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province intends to release more detailed information, though she did not say when that will happen.

With files from Shanifa Nasser, Lucas Powers, Mike Crawley and The Canadian Press