As It Happens·Q&A

'I lost my mom and she was only 66': Woman calls for inquiry into N.S. long-term care deaths

Erica Surette wants a public inquiry into the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a Nova Scotia long-term care home. Without one, she says she fears her 66-year-old mother will have died for nothing.

An expert review into COVID-19 deaths at the Northwood facility falls short, says Erica Surette 

Erica Surette, right, posed for a picture with her mother Patricia West, after renewing her wedding vows last summer. West died from COVID-19 on April 22. She was 66 years old. (Submitted by Erica Surette )


Erica Surette wants a public inquiry into the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a Nova Scotia long-term care home. Without one, she says she fears her 66-year-old mother will have died for nothing.

Surette is the lead plaintiff in a proposed class-action against Halifax's Northwood long-term care facility, where 345 residents and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. 

In Nova Scotia, 65 people have died from COVID-19, and 53 of those were Northwood residents. One of them was Surette's mother, Patricia West, who died on April 22, after being moved to a shared room. 

On Monday, the province released 13 recommendations from an expert report into the outbreak, including reducing room occupancy, enacting a plan to cope with staff shortages and improving communications with residents and family. The government says it will not be releasing the report itself.

Nova Scotia Health Minister Randy Delorey says the government is working to implement the recommendations, and has committed to doing away with rooms with more than two residents.

Northwood said in a statement that it will take time to review the recommendations before commenting publicly, but that it remains committed to the safety of its staff and residents. The facility says it has reduced its occupancy from 485 to 375, and has 16 residents living in double-rooms. 

"We will maintain some shared accommodations for scenarios such as couples who want to live together, or those who prefer to have a roommate," the statement reads. 

Surette says the response from the facility and the government both fall short. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Erica, I know that after your mother died, you [told the Halifax Examiner] your wish was that the tragedy of her loss would not be for nothing. How confident are you of that today?

I'm still not super confident. I still feel like there are answers that I don't have, and honestly, that I'm not sure if I'm ever going to get.

What would have made a difference for your mother?

No.1, the shared room. I still firmly believe that was instrumental. That was a key part of what ultimately led to her death.

Mom was in a private room, and she was moved to a shared room in the middle of a pandemic. And yes, I know there was a whole process, and I was involved. She was to the point where she needed a higher level of care, and that was all well and good. But it was the middle of a pandemic. There was no worse time to move her to a shared room.

I am a firm believer that there shouldn't be shared rooms. There is no need for it.

And that's one of the things that they have identified as being something that needs to be looked at at this facility, at Northwood, isn't it?

It is. One of the problems that I have with their findings, however, is that they are only willing to commit to not having three or four people bunking to a room. They still believe that two people is acceptable. And they also believe that even if you're in your own room, it's acceptable to be sharing a bathroom.

Do you think that your mother would not have would not have got COVID-19 if she hadn't been moved to a double-room?

That's a great question. If I knew for sure, I'd bet the lottery numbers. But in my heart, I believe that she would still be here. And maybe that's just me being emotional. But I firmly believe that.

It's funny. So, when all of this started happening with Northwood, almost every day on their website, they would outline the new cases that were identified and what floor they were on.

And right up until the week that Mom passed, there hadn't been a single case reported ... on the floor where her private room was.... And the floor that they moved her to the shared room was basically the epicentre. 

At Northwood's long-term care facility in Halifax, 53 residents have died from COVID-19. (Robert Short/CBC)

One of the other issues is about keeping people informed. And that was something, for you, that wasn't the case, was it? How did you find out that your mother had COVID-19?

I called and I found out from one of the nurses who thought that I had already been told.

When Mom started first getting sick, it was right before the Easter weekend in April, and I spoke with her on the phone. And then there was another lady that I was dealing with at Northwood ... and she was, you know, trying to assure me my mom had the test done and her test was supposed to come back that weekend. And I called to follow up again and was basically assured that, you know, "No news is good news, so if we don't have your mom's results back yet, then I wouldn't really worry," and somebody would contact me the next day.

So that Monday I ended up calling, because I would call several times a day to check with the staff there on Mom's floor, and one of the nurses that answered said, "Oh, they haven't told you yet? OK, let me get the head nurse to give you a call back as soon as she can."

Another hour or so goes by. I finally get a phone call. "Oh, we thought somebody told you. Yeah, your mom tested positive."

Patricia West died from COVID-19 on April 22. She contracted the virus at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax — the epicenter of cases in the Atlantic province. (Submitted by Erica Surette)

What should become of Northwood, do you think?

They need to severely reduce their capacity. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, while they believe that having double-rooms are still OK and shared bathrooms are OK, it's not.

It's obvious, I mean, to your average person. If you take two people and you bunk them in a room together, or you have two people and you have them sharing a bathroom, it doesn't matter what kind of amazing measures you have in place; you're not going to control the spread of the virus there.

They need to severely reduce the population at Northwood so that everybody does have their own room. You know, our health minister was even asked about the possibility of no longer having shared bathrooms, and he basically said that that's not possible, just that you would have to change the entire infrastructure of Northwood, and it's just not possible.

If you could speak to the minister, if you could address the politicians in charge of long-term care directly, what would you say to them?

That's a loaded question. I think for me, part of it is trying to be rational and see both sides. But the other part of me is obviously emotional. I mean, I lost my mom and she was only 66.

I guess this kind of goes hand-in-hand with why ... we've been pushing for an inquiry from the beginning. You know, yes, I understand the review was supposed to be quick and get these recommendations under way, but there's nothing transparent about it.

I want to know what happened to Mom. Who made the decision that it was OK to move her to a shared room in the middle of a pandemic? You know, who put the stamp on that and said go ahead and do it?

I want to know, you know, what exactly happened? Why did you have staff that were just coming and going? It's not even like they were required just to immediately go home and and stay there. You know, people would get off work and would go grocery shopping and they would go and do whatever they needed and visit family and friends and then show back up to work. You can't control the virus doing these things, like, what did you think was going to happen?

And that's why, right until the end, I will always push for an inquiry, because we need to know what exactly happened. We need that openness, the transparency, and the accountability.

So even with this review, yes, it's great that you're coming and you're laying these recommendations out. But we're not even given a timeline as to when any of these recommendations could be completed, or if they will ever be completed. We don't know what else is in the review, and the inquiry would help with that.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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