As long-term care COVID-19 outbreaks rise, Ontario Opposition calls for action on staffing, safety

COVID-19 outbreaks in the province’s long-term care settings are rising once more, with the NDP now calling on the provincial government to do more to protect residents and workers.

Minister says province is taking necessary steps to protect residents, workers

Roberta Place long-term care home, in Barrie, Ont., is pictured on Jan. 18, 2021. COVID-19 outbreaks in the province's long-term care sector have once again risen as the Omicron variant sweeps across Ontario. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

COVID-19 outbreaks in the province's long-term care settings are rising once more, with the NDP now calling on the provincial government to do more to protect residents and workers.

In an announcement made Friday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the province should implement measures like a raise for personal support workers and bring in hazard pay, as well as provide more personal protective equipment and increased staffing levels.

"What's happening inside long-term care is terrifying," said Horwath in a statement.

"In previous waves, our loved ones in nursing homes were not only dying of COVID, they were dying of neglect. They went without enough food and water, or basic care because staffing levels were so low it was inhumane. Now, staffing levels are lower than ever, the outbreaks are back, and families are deeply worried for their parents and grandparents."

The province reported Friday that 208 of its 626 long-term care homes are currently in outbreak, though 68 were in homes with no resident cases. 

Public Health Ontario data, meanwhile, lists 312 long-term care outbreaks, as well as 166 in retirement homes. The province says there is a discrepancy in those numbers because they are drawn from different sources, and public health unit data may contain multiple outbreak reports in a facility, for example, if two separate wings or units are in an outbreak.

"Both data sets represent point-in-time snapshots, and due to the rapidly evolving situation with the Omicron variant, data can change from hour to hour," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Long-Term Care said in an email.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says the province should be doing more to protect both residents and workers in long-term care. (CBC)

Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips told CBC News he expects the number of outbreaks will grow, given how prevalent transmission of the Omicron variant has become in the province.

Ontario reported a pandemic high of 2,472 people with COVID-19 in hospital on Friday, as the number of admissions to intensive care increased again.

The previous high of 2,360 hospitalizations came on April 20, 2021 during the height of the third wave.

Ontario last saw the number of outbreaks in long-term care rise to this level back in February of 2021, before that number bottomed out to single digits later in the year. It was still relatively low as recently as November, but as Omicron surged across the province, so did the number of outbreaks.

Phillips said that is to be expected, as long-term care homes are a reflection of communities in which they reside.

"So to the extent that the virus continues to grow in the communities, we'll expect to see a continued growth in terms of overall outbreaks," he said.

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips says the province will likely see an increase in outbreaks, but residents are better protected thanks to vaccine coverage. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press)

But, he said, a number of outbreaks don't involve any residents, and over 50 per cent of the residents who are testing positive have been asymptomatic — no doubt partly because close to 90 per cent of eligible residents have had three doses of a vaccine, with fourth doses now being administered.

The province is not far removed from earlier waves of the pandemic, when the long-term care sector was absolutely decimated by the virus. To date, Ontario has reported 3,851 deaths of residents with COVID-19, as well as 13 staff. According to the province's website, 16 deaths were reported in the last three days, after an extended lull.

Still, Phillips said he doesn't see the past repeating in the sector.

"We cannot and don't take anything for granted, but the situation is fundamentally different," he said.

He also added that PPE is being provided in long-term care facilities, in conjunction with the installation of enhanced air filtration systems.

"We are taking the steps to make sure we are protecting residents."

With files from Mike Crawley


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