Toronto

'Loophole' in Ontario's COVID-19 long-term care plan allows temp workers in multiple homes

Though the province has issued an emergency order prohibiting employees from working at multiple long-term care facilities in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, temporary workers are still being allowed to work in more than one place.

Province says this is being allowed to ensure 'a steady supply of staff' on an emergency basis

Toronto’s Seven Oaks long-term care home is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak affecting residents and staff. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Despite the province issuing an emergency order prohibiting employees from working at multiple long-term care facilities in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, temporary workers are still being allowed to work in more than one facility.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, NDP MPP Bhutila Karpoche called the issue a "giant loophole."

"This is troubling because workers from temp agencies make up a significant part of long-term care staffing," said Karpoche, MPP for Parkdale-High Park.

The latest figures from the province show 933 long-term care residents have been infected with COVID-19 in Ontario, while 162 have died. Out of the province's 626 long-term care homes, 104 are dealing with outbreaks, and 530 staffers have been infected.

Karpoche says it's important to get things right, and fast.

"We cannot waste any more time and we cannot leave huge loopholes open."

Ministry of Long-Term Care spokesperson Gloria Yip confirmed to CBC News Thursday morning that temporary workers are able to take shifts in more than one facility, despite the order. 

"In order to ensure a steady supply of staff available to work on an emergency basis in long-term care homes, this order would not apply to agency workers or other critical contract staff," she said.

"To ensure the safety of long-term care residents, these workers are subject to 'active screening' direction set out in a directive by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, which requires a rigorous screening process before being permitted entry into a long-term care home."

The province says less than two per cent of personal support workers, registered nurses and registered practical nurses working in long-term care homes are agency staff. These homes can also use agency staff for positions like housekeeping and food services, but those numbers aren't reported to the ministry.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions at the daily briefing at the Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Premier Doug Ford has said the government is trying to put an "iron ring" around vulnerable seniors in long-term care, as the province is "dealing with a wildfire at our long-term care homes right now.

"We owe it to our most vulnerable, we owe it to their families and loved ones, to fight this terrible virus until the end," Ford said at the province's daily COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.

In a letter sent to Ontario hospitals Wednesday, the province said it is now issuing a "temporary pause" on transitioning hospital patients to long-term care and retirement homes.

"With hospital acute care capacity across Ontario at 64.1 per cent as of April 13, we believe hospitals can continue to care for these patients safely given the risk of COVID-19 in LTC and retirement home settings," the letter reads.

Ontario's emergency order came weeks after British Columbia's, which made the move to limit caregivers from working at multiple long-term care homes after it became clear that outbreaks were linked to employees working at more than one site.

Unions representing health-care workers have long raised the issue, saying staffers often work at multiple facilities because they're unable to get full-time positions.

As part of the order, Ford has said Ontario will cover the funding to bring additional staffing into homes where outbreaks are occurring and will cover costs of increasing hours for part-time staff. 

The federal government is also stepping in to provide more support in the long-term care sector, even though it falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of long-term care, said Wednesday that the province will also provide personal protective equipment to any long-term care homes in need within 24 hours of their request, and will work toward "better isolation measures."

That's not enough for some families. On Wednesday, CBC Toronto spoke with a police officer who was pulling his mother out of a long-term care home amid a COVID-19 outbreak. You can watch that interview in the video below:

Toronto Police officer Duane Simon explains why he pulled his 90-year-old mother out of a long-term care home in Pickering. 0:37

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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Adam Carter

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Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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