Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

COVID-19: Health Minister responds to calls for feds to do more to protect long-term care home residents

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says federal and provincial governments are doing all they can to prevent the "ongoing carnage" wrought by COVID-19 in Canada's long-term care homes, amidst calls for the federal government to step in and take a more active role.

'I believe that our government dithered on this,' says Toronto-based geriatrician Dr. Nathan Stall

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu listens on a translation aid to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, on Tuesday April 14. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says federal and provincial governments are doing all they can to prevent the "ongoing carnage" wrought by COVID-19 in Canada's long-term care homes, amidst calls for the federal government to step in and take a more active role.

According to Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, nearly half of the country's 1,600 COVID-19 deaths are linked to these homes.

Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says the Canadian government should have heeded warnings from places like Spain and Italy, where "horrifying reports" emerged of residents found dead in their beds.

"I believe that our government dithered on this. I think we had enough foresight to know what was going to happen to long-term care residents and to know that older adults were going to be hit in this way," said Stall.

"This is a group of people that are most of the time very invisible and have no one to advocate for them. And it was not until tragedy happened that that action was really sufficiently taken."

Thirty-one residents of Etobicoke's Eatonville long-term care home have died of COVID-19 as of Saturday, and more than half are infected, according to executive director Evelyn MacDonald. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

Checkup host Duncan McCue spoke to Hajdu on Saturday about what the federal government is prepared to do in the face of the mounting death toll. Here is part of their conversation.

Minister … there were warning signs in Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Belgium, that long-term care homes were high risk. Why hasn't this been a priority right from the outset in terms of your federal response?

I'd say it has been a priority, and I think all along, as Dr. Tam has been working with her counterparts through the special committee … there was an early focus on … a full recognition that vulnerable populations would include people living in long-term care homes.

But not just long-term care homes: other group-home types of settings, people living with disabilities, for example — those kinds of settings where there are multiple people and multiple vulnerabilities.

So this was not at all overlooked in terms of what we knew would be a high risk for Canada.

And certainly … there is a provincial responsibility for the provision of care in long-term care homes. And the federal government does have, obviously, a role in this. But certainly we have some limitations as well in terms of directing provinces and how they'll provide that care.

It may be difficult for the federal government to step into the long-term care arena because it's under provincial jurisdiction. But there have been calls for years now for the federal government to step in — and particularly during this crisis.

So why stay at arm's length, especially during this crisis?

Well, I don't think we are. … I would say, obviously … it's unfortunate that it's taken [the] coronavirus to have a conversation about the inhumane ways that seniors are living, in some cases, in some of these homes.

This is an opportunity for a complete reset in how we manage the care of seniors, for example, but also other vulnerable people who are relying on these types of homes to support them as they either age or they live in the community.

Twenty-three residents have died of COVID-19 in Anson Place Care Centre, in Hagersville, Ont., according to executive director Lisa Roth. About 70 per cent of the 101 residents have the virus. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If it's time for a reset, is your government going to announce that? I mean, we've had callers on the program that are telling us about residents that are living in cramped quarters, sometimes four to a room. When is the federal government going to take a more active approach to overhauling the long-term care system?

I think we are, actually, as we speak. I mean, it's very unusual, I would say, for the federal government to step in, in such an active way in terms of the kinds of resources that we're offering.

But I don't disagree at all with the experts that say that there needs to be a larger project that includes the national strategy. And as I've said publicly many times, I'm looking forward to that opportunity.

But of course, that work is right now, unfortunately, not easy to do in the middle of a crisis, given that everybody is working flat out to actually better their own particular circumstances in their own provinces and territories.

And so we stay focused on getting through this crisis and saving lives and helping provinces and territories with whatever resources they need.

And after we have a moment to pause and breathe, I think that will be the time to be saying: Now, how do we make these changes permanent and how do we increase the dignity and the safety of people who live in these kinds of facilities?

We also had Dr. Samir Sinha on Checkup last week, one of the country's top seniors care experts. And he suggested that if it's possible, you might want to take your loved one out of a long-term care facility right now. That's how serious the crisis is.

So what would you advise Canadians? Should they take their loved ones out of seniors' homes if they can?

You know, I would not feel comfortable making a recommendation like that — first of all, because I'm not a medical professional. Second of all, because each situation is different and each family's situation is different. And thirdly, because I think those are very personal decisions.

So I don't think it's appropriate for me to make those kinds of judgments in such a broad, sweeping way. … I think those kinds of decisions are best made with medical professionals and families in an individual one on one basis based on their circumstances.

What I will say is that I know that at the federal level, we are extremely concerned and heartbroken by what's happening to the seniors across the country.

And we have put together resources to help support provinces and territories, make it better right now so that we can save lives, that we can prevent the ongoing carnage in our long-term care homes across the country.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Levi Garber. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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