Toronto

Ontario to stop caregivers from working at multiple long-term care homes as COVID-19 spreads like 'wildfire'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford will issue an emergency order that will prohibit employees from working at multiple long-term care facilities.

Province will also deploy available health system staff to homes to help address surge in infections

Outside Toronto's Eatonville Care Centre, a body wrapped in a white sheet is rolled out on a stretcher, pushed by a woman dressed head-to-toe in protective gear. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford will issue an emergency order prohibiting employees from working at multiple long-term care facilities in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ford made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday, where he said long-term care homes are quickly turning into the front lines in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

"We're dealing with a wildfire at our long-term care homes right now," Ford said Tuesday, adding the order would take effect Tuesday night. 

Of the province's 626 long-term facilities, 114 are currently reporting infections, representing about 14 per cent of all such homes, the premier said. Another 34 seniors homes out of more than 500 across the province are also infected, Ford said.

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

Until now, Ontario has stopped short of mandating such a move, with the provincial government issuing guidance last month aimed at long-term care homes, stating that "employers should work with employees to limit the number of different work locations that employees are working at, to minimize risk to patients of exposure to COVID-19."

WATCH | Ontario Premier Doug Ford on the plan to fight COVID-19 in long-term care homes:

Ontario is stopping workers from taking shifts at multiple homes and reallocating frontline healthcare workers as nursing homes continue to struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19. 2:02

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

Ford also said Tuesday that the province will also be launching an action plan that will see available resources within Ontario's health system redeployed to homes experiencing outbreaks.

Whereas hospitals in the province have not seen the surges that were feared in terms of numbers of infected patients, long-term care homes are seeing major pressures, Ford said. For that reason, hospital workers will be reallocated to homes where possible to help combat the spread.

Asked Monday if she felt limiting the number of homes where a long-term care worker could work would make a difference at this point in the pandemic, associate medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said she believed it could.

Ford had a similar message Tuesday, saying he believed it wasn't too late.

The measures come as Ontario contends with an increasing number of deaths among the most vulnerable in its long-term care and retirement homes. So far, Pinecrest in Bobcaygeon, Ont. has been hardest hit, followed closely by Eatoncville Care Centre in Toronto's west end, and Seven Oaks, also in Toronto.

As of Tuesday morning, the death toll at Ontario's long-term facilities is:

  • Pinecrest Nursing Home - Bobcaygeon - 29
  • Eatonville Care Centre - Toronto - 27
  • Seven Oaks - Toronto - 22
  • Almonte Country Haven - Lanark County - 18
  • Anson Place Retirement Home - Hagersville - 13 
  • Markhaven Home for Seniors - Markham - 9
  • Village of Humber Heights - Toronto - 8 
  • Hillsdale Terraces - Oshawa - 11
  • St. Clair O'Connor - Toronto - 7
  • Landmark Village - Sarnia-Lambton - 6

Relatives of patients residing at Eatonville Care received automated phone calls over the holiday weekend informing them that 25 residents there had died of the virus. The death toll at Eatonville has since risen to 27, according to a written statement from officials there Tuesday evening.

Jacqueline Mitchell was one of the family members who received the robocalls.

"I feel it is very callous," she said. "I understand the need to communicate with a whole lot of people … But they have to find a way to communicate this with more heart and more empathy."

'You feel helpless'

Each day since Ontario's long-term care homes moved to prohibit visitors from entering, Mitchell has lived with the gnawing worry that her March 9 visit with her her mother might well have been the final time she'll see her.

"I don't know if that was the last time I would have seen my mother alive and I live with that thought every day," she told CBC News.

Mitchell said she's been told all the residents at the home will now be tested for the virus, but that families will only be contacted if their loved ones test positive.

"You feel helpless... She's just laying in a bed next to another person who we don't know, separated by a curtain. And when I say to them, 'Could you tell me if that person is infected?' they say, 'We can't tell you anything about that person because of that person's privacy.'"

WATCH | Henry Tomaszewski worries about his mother inside Eatonville Care Centre:

Those with loved ones at the facility that's been hard hit by COVID-19 are worried about what's happening inside. 1:37

Asked about the robocall at a news conference Monday, Ford said while he knows homes are strapped for personnel, a recorded message seemed to him to be "cold."

On Tuesday, Ford said Eatonville has since acknowledged the robocall was "insensitive" and that it won't happen again.

In addition to the 25 who have died of the virus at Eatonville so far, the home, with some 247 residents, has another 49 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, with fears that number will only grow.

In an interview on CBC Radio's Here and Now, Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare — which represents more personal support workers in Ontario than any other union—  said she feels the measures announced by the province Tuesday may actually force care workers to compete for work at the highest-paying facilities. 

""I'm worried that unless the government orders and directs these employers to secure full-time work for these workers or to provide a universal wage across the province, that you're going to be seeing them possibly take other options, such as what is being offered through the federal government through the CERB," Stewart said.

She also questioned whether the order will cover all long-term care workers, such as those coming from temp agencies, and wants assurances that anyone working at a facility in any capacity will be barred from working at multiple homes.

Stewart added her union has been "ringing the alarm bells" for weeks, saying it should have come as no surprise that the impact of the virus is being felt most at long-term care homes and that the province should have acted sooner. 

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the province's ministry of long-term care said it is following the advice of Ontario's chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams in terms of the use of personal protective equipment and testing.

"Those being tested in long-term care include all new or returning residents within 14 days of arrival — a period during which they are in isolation, all hospital transfers prior to transfer, and all residents and staff with symptoms or risk of exposure to COVID-19," said Gloria Yip.

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