CTV News Vancouver has learned B.C.’s Ministry of Health quietly commissioned an independent report into the deadly impact of COVID-19 on care homes in the summer of 2020 and that they have received the final document, but not made the findings or recommendations public.
The government never announced it had hired an outside company to conduct such a review and has made no public mention of any recommendations or findings. On Thursday afternoon, three days after CTV News first requested information, a spokesperson finally confirmed existence of the report, that the ministry had received it and that the ministry would be releasing it the following week. The spokesperson downplayed the report’s importance, however.
“It was a minor report designed to assist ministry staff in addressing issues,” wrote the ministry spokesperson, who claimed no one was available to address the issue. “Minister (Adrian) Dix’s schedule cannot accommodate an interview at this time, but please feel free to loop back once the report is released.”
The province had faced intense criticism for its secrecy around information on care home outbreaks, when they were addressed and how, prompting the ministry to issue a weekly disclosure document beginning earlier this month. Public health officials have said the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in B.C. have been in care homes.
CTV News has asked the ministry when it received the Ernst and Young report, but staff have not yet responded.
Timing of report questioned
Two people who participated in the review by Ernst and Young say they were under the impression it would be released by October so that officials could implement findings and recommendations before the second wave of the pandemic.
The premier has been soundly criticized for calling a snap election for Oct. 24 and the official opposition is now questioning whether the report and its findings were kept quiet to allow for a smooth campaign.
"I'm deeply concerned about the fact there's been a complete lack of transparency about this report,” said interim BC Liberal leader Shirley Bond. “All of us want to better understand what happened in long-term care. What do we need to differently? And if the government received advice before they went into an election, they needed to make that public to be transparent with British Columbians … We have a significant number of questions around when was the report received, will the full report in its entirety be released, and if the government has no concerns about what's in that report, why hasn't it been released by now?”
The NDP government has faced repeated calls for greater transparency around COVID-19 information, policies and public communication and Bond said the secrecy around the Ernst and Young report is another example.
“We have expressed ongoing concerns about data, about sharing and now to find that there's potentially a report that provided advice to government about policies and practices in long-term care, we need to see that report. British Columbians deserve to see it," she said.
Participants speak up
The Hospital Employees’ Union and BC Care Providers Association confirmed they had been interviewed by Ernst and Young in the summer of 2020 as the consultancy firm gathered information from health officials and stakeholders on how the pandemic was able to spread so quickly and lead to so many deaths in long-term care facilities.
Neither group has seen the finished report or been briefed on what it contains; the BCCPA expected the results in early fall, when recommendations could be considered by government.
SafeCareBC, a not-for-profit agency supporting 31,000 continuing care workers at 850 different organizations in the province, conducted a survey of its members in August, encouraging them to respond to Ernst and Young by Aug. 10. Questions included:
Thinking about what you’ve seen since the pandemic began, what policies or strategies worked well to reduce (the) impact of COVID-19 in the continuing care sector?
What do you think the province and/or continuing care sector needs to do differently next time?
What would help your organization be more prepared against COVID-19, or future pandemics?
"Our understanding is that the purpose of this report is to really look at what happened during the first wave," said CEO Jen Lyle. “It's not intended as finger-pointing or the blame game, but really so that we could look at what happened, understand what worked, what didn't work, so that we could learn from it and apply that not to just what could potentially happen in the near future but any emergencies or pandemics that may happen years from now so we can enhance our responses and do better."
Lyle said she raised five major issues going forward, including better access to and training with PPE, staffing shortages and the single-site order, mental health and stress on workers, the impact of the restrictive visitation policy on residents and staff alike, as well as communication conflicts between messaging and orders from the province compared to local health authorities.
The BC Care Providers Association conducted its own review, publishing a final report in November.
“There were significant inconsistencies between communication and directives from the Ministry of Health and the health authorities,” the association noted. “Providers overwhelmingly agreed there was a lack of clarity around which body had authority as directions were given or changed.”
News of Ernst and Young’s review comes less than a week after B.C.’s Seniors Advocate announced she would be launching a review into deaths at care homes during the pandemic. The exact scope and timeline of her work is still to be determined, but testing strategies, PPE access, containment and declaration of outbreaks as well as how some outbreaks were quickly contained while others raged seemingly unabated are all factors Isobel Mackenzie will be looking at.
The Office of the Seniors’ Advocate said Mackenzie had spoken to Ernst and Young about the funding model for long-term care in August, but wasn’t under the impression the the discussion had anything to do with the first wave of the pandemic and the response to COVID-19. She looks forward to seeing the report for herself on Monday.
Last week, the premier welcomed Mackenzie’s review but brushed aside suggestions that a more formal process should take place.
“I look forward to the recommendations she brings forward, I think it's premature at this time to talk about commissions,” said John Horgan on Thursday, Jan. 14. “I think we need to focus on vaccinations, I think we need to focus on making sure we're building new long-term care facilities to do away with four-person rooms, to build a modern long-term care structure that will meet the next generation’s needs. That's our priority today.”
Horgan did not make any mention of his government commissioning an outside agency to conduct such a report six months earlier.
Minister’s office reaches out
Exactly two hours after CTV News published the first version of this article on CTVNewsVancouver.ca, someone from the health minister’s office contacted the reporter.
The staffer said Dix would be releasing the report on Monday and promised a one-on-one interview with CTV News to discuss it.