Commander acknowledges COVID-19 hazards as troops head into Ontario nursing homes

Canadian troops started deploying to Ontario nursing homes last week — mostly in the Greater Toronto area — and the military has finalized plans to be in as many as 20 long-term care centres in Quebec as part of a pandemic mission their commander says he never anticipated.

Soldiers have arrived in Ontario nursing homes and plan to be in up to 20 long-term care homes in Quebec

An Armed Forces member walks out of CHSLD Yvon-Brunet on Saturday. About 125 military nursing officers, medical technicians and support personnel were sent to help after Quebec asked Ottawa for assistance earlier this week. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As he deployed hundreds more soldiers into Ontario nursing homes on Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was determined to avoid comparing his new public health mission to anything resembling a war.

"As a professional soldier, I have a hard time connecting with terms like 'front lines' and 'it's a war zone,'" said Fortin, a veteran of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, now commanding the military's pandemic response.

"I've seen combat. That's not combat, but that does not mean it is not a super-difficult situation."

Still, it takes courage to fight both wars and pandemics — and Fortin said he's been moved by the bravery and determination displayed by the health care workers facing down disease and death in institutions ravaged by weeks of COVID-19.

"My hat is off to them," he told CBC News.

The military is finalizing plans to extend its existing operations in five Quebec long-term care centres to include up to 20 seniors' residences — a new deployment that begins later this week and ramps up fully by mid-May, said Fortin.

Pandemic hotspots

It may not be a war, but the soldiers taking part in the mission are still taking personal risks by working in pandemic hotspots responsible for an overwhelming number of deaths.

"We've had long discussions about this," Fortin told CBC News — his first media interview since taking over Operation Laser, the military's title for the pandemic response mission.

"There's risks with every military operation. That's how we attack this problem. We know there's risks and we do everything we can to mitigate those risks."

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, commander of Canada's military pandemic response. (Radio Canada)

The question of precautions is an urgent one for the Canadian Armed Forces [CAF] in light of recent instructions from at least one health board in Quebec.

The Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre told physicians volunteering in long-term care centres that wearing an N95 protective mask is required for "aerosol-generating procedures only" — essentially patient care and treatments that generate airborne particles.

Those procedures aren't performed very often in seniors homes, the board said in an April 18, 2020 letter obtained by CBC News.

"It is therefore forbidden for doctors to wear the N95 masks for the medical visits, as this generates significant anxiety among staff," said the letter, signed by the board's director of professional services.

The Red Cross has set up a hospital in a LaSalle arena to take any overflow of COVID-19 patients from western Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Fortin said CAF won't deploy to facilities "without the proper training and proper equipment — to protect [soldiers] and also to ensure they don't become threat vectors.

"Just like their civilian counterparts in those long-term care facilities, they wear surgical masks. They will wear the appropriate eye protection, the appropriate eyewear. They wear gloves. They wear gowns, or they wear a combination of scrubs with the medical team."

The degree of personal protection worn by soldiers will vary depending upon the amount of interaction they have with residents, he said.

A mission like no other

Many of the troops will be performing manual labour, such as cleaning up and carting laundry. Others are being asked to provide direct care to seniors under the supervision of medical staff. They'll be delivering meals, helping residents walk the halls or arranging phone calls to residents' family members on the outside.

Altogether, it's an unusual military operation, Fortin said — and not one he ever expected to find himself commanding.

The military initially saw its pandemic role as one of helping law enforcement in a non-policing capacity, setting up reception centres and preparing for other domestic emergencies, such as floods.

"I would not have anticipated us getting so heavily involved in those facilities," said Fortin, who added he's seen some trepidation among the troops — due more to the novelty of the mission than to the potential health risks.

"While it is not their trade, they are embracing this task," he said.

"They're eager to help other Canadians in need. They feel very proud to be asked to do something like this. Will they be outside of their comfort zone? Yeah, no doubt."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed some skepticism last week when he was asked whether caring for seniors is an appropriate task for the military, describing it as a stop-gap solution.

As the provinces struggle to find volunteer caregivers to help out in long-term care homes, Fortin said the military leadership is talking to individual provincial governments about next steps. 

"Hard to say how long we're going to be there ... Emphasis on 'temporary,'" he said.

An expensive tool to fight a pandemic

The Parliamentary Budget Office said Tuesday that the plan to call up as many as 10,000 military reservists to combat the pandemic could cost as much as $456 million in the current budget year, and possibly another $230 million down the road.

The PBO also offered some caveats that suggest the final cost might be higher.

"As the full extent and nature of CAF operations in response to COVID-19 remains uncertain, this cost estimate concerns only those costs directly associated with the employment, deployment and sustainment of the 10,000 reserve personnel," said the PBO report. "Any costs associated with specific military activities during the deployment are not included."

So far, the federal government has received eight requests for military pandemic assistance from provinces which have resulted in the deployment of troops or equipment.

Three of those requests were answered with Canadian Ranger patrols — two in northern Quebec and one in northern Saskatchewan. 

The Rangers have conducted more than 100 patrols since being mobilized on pandemic duty, Fortin said. A military transport also was used recently to send a ventilator to Nova Scotia.


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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