'State of emergency' at Markham facility for adults with disabilities after staff walk away over COVID-19

Staff at a facility for adults with developmental and physical disabilities in Markham are making an emergency callout for more supplies after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti calls for donations of gowns, safety glasses, gloves

Participation House in Markham says the majority of residents and some staff members have been diagnosed with COVID-19. (Simon Dingley/CBC)

A facility for adults with developmental and physical disabilities in Markham says it's in "a state of emergency" after dozens of staff walked out amid an outbreak of COVID-19, and is making an urgent call out for more staff and supplies.

Shelley Brillinger said staff at the Butternut Lane site of Participation House near Highway 7 and Ninth Line has been dwindling for weeks as people stayed home to care for loved ones or protect themselves from the virus.

Brillinger, executive director of the home, said that when she told employees Thursday that 10 residents and two staff members at the 42-resident home had tested positive for COVID-19, nearly everyone refused to keep working.

"There was a audible scream in the room, and some gasps, and people were just devastated," Brillinger said.

Soon after, she said, she learned that all but four of the workers were walking away from their duties. Typically, she said, 35 people work at the facility in a 24-hour time-frame.

But Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Secretary and VP Tom Galivan says, unfortunately, due to the way management informed staff about the outbreak, many workers left confused.

"They told staff that if they felt they were at risk of self-exposure that they could self-isolate or quarantine and many of our members, especially elderly members and those who have vulnerable family members at home took that as permission to leave the workplace," he said. 

"This was not a mass action, not a job action, not a strike."

He adds there were existing staff and PPE shortages at the home prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

'We can't hold this ship without reinforcements'

Brillinger said managers stepped in to do front-line work, and some hospital workers have also come to help, but ultimately, the facility needs more people.

"We can't hold this ship without reinforcements," Brillinger said.

Brillinger said the workers had been using personal protective equipment since Monday, and all proper procedures were being followed, but the workers were too afraid to keep going in spite of the great need.

They don't have a voice, and my message would be it's our responsibility to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves.- Shelley Brillinger

"Our residents are the most vulnerable in society," she said, noting that their disabilities mean they need help walking, eating and doing other things many people take for granted.

"They don't have a voice, and my message would be it's our responsibility to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves and ensure that they have the care that they deserve," Brillinger said.

In a statement posted online, the facility said it is in "critical need" of more personal protective equipment (PPE) and support staff to care for residents.

"Our staffing levels are dangerously low; we are seeking any assistance possible from the community to ensure our vulnerable residents are fed and cared for," the statement says.

Louise and Earl Baird visited Participation House Friday to have a look around outside. (CBC News)

Earl Baird's sister, Patricia, 53, lives at the facility. She has Down syndrome and has difficulty communicating.

"There's no PPE, there's a staff shortage… so our big point here is why is there not testing for everybody here in these long-term homes?" he said.

"I understand it's not cut and dry, but come on. If you want vulnerable, have a walk in there one day."

Ontario officials said Friday that residents in long-term care are only being tested if they're symptomatic, have been in contact with a positive case or if they're being admitted to the facility.

Earl Baird says his sister, Patricia, has Down syndrome and is low-functioning. For now, he says she hasn't been tested for COVID-19 and is doing well. (CBC News)

Baird and his wife, Louise, said they're worried about those who live at the facility and have underlying health issues.

"I'm very worried. I don't want her to get sick," Louise said of her sister in law.

"She's precious to us, she's our life. So I am concerned."

Frank Scarpitti, the mayor of Markham, 30 kilometres northeast of Toronto, is calling on businesses, community groups and individuals to help supply PPE to Participation House. (CBC)

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti put out a statement on Twitter Friday, calling for emergency support.

"Their situation speaks to the vulnerability of the residents and staff, and exactly why the public has to strictly adhere to physical distancing and all other requirements during this public health emergency," he said.

Scarpitti also called on businesses, community groups and individuals to help supply gowns, safety glasses and gloves. 

He says he's already seen a huge response.

"Companies [are] donating face shields for the workers there. They have a shortage of gowns. Gowns have come forward from different companies. It's been a wonderful," he said.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott spoke about the situation in the province's briefing Friday.

"We clearly need to get staff there," she said, adding they'll also be getting tests to all those exhibiting symptoms. 

"We're going to need to put them into self-isolation and make sure that they get the care that they expect and deserve. So we need to do a number of things quite rapidly."

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services Palmer Lockridge says PPE is available at Participation House and more is on the way. 

He says they are also working to make sure "appropriate staffing levels are in place and that all steps are being taken to protect staff and residents." 

The Ministry says eight support staff, including three personal support workers and one nurse, have already stepped in to help assist at the facility.

Participation House has six separate units, each with six bedrooms and three shared washrooms. 

None of the other sites have been impacted by the outbreak.