Where did things go wrong? B.C. advocate's report looks at 800 COVID-19 deaths in long-term care
Hundreds of nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 in B.C., prompting repeated calls for accountability from the province. Now, a new report is highlighting what should be done to better protect seniors.
The just-published report from the Office of the Seniors Advocate of British Columbia outlines what happened in the province's long-term care system in the first year of the pandemic. Specifically, seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie looked into the contributing factors behind outbreaks between March 2020 and February 2021.
Mackenzie's office looked at more than 100,000 records when completing its investigation, reviewing 365 outbreaks at 210 sites.
In the report, Mackenzie outlined a number of recommendations, including:
- Increasing paid sick leave for staff;
- Increasing the pool of direct care staff;
- Increasing the levels of registered nursing staff as a proportion of direct care staff;
- Decreasing contracting for direct care services;
- Eliminating shared rooms;
- Increasing the scope, timelines and frequency of COVID-19 testing
During the question-and-answer period that followed Mackenzie's presentation of her report at a news conference Wednesday, she said repeatedly that increased paid sick leave is among the most impactful changes the province could make, along with an end to the contracting out of care staff.
The report revealed that 40 per cent of staff indicated they had come to work sick on one or more occasion during the pandemic.
"Their main reason for coming was their concern (about) the burden their absense would have on their colleagues and residents, although the lack of being paid was also a concern for some," explained MacKenzie of the findings.
"I'm sure it was responsible for some outbreaks and if we'd have had rapid testing of staff three or four times a week, perhaps this would have prevented people coming to work or being allowed to work when they were not feeling well," said Terry Lake, CEO of the BC Care Providers Association.
When asked about the recommendations, Health Minister Adrian Dix said his government has "raised care standards everywhere."
He said the province is already working on creating a province-wide sick leave program.
With respect to increasing the number of registered nurses, Dix said: "In our budget in 2021, we provided $96 million in funding. We are adding new seats and new supports."
"Since I became minister of health, we've increased the number of registered nurses by six per cent – leading Canada – and the number of licensed practical nurses by 12 per cent," the minister said.
In a statement, The Hospital Employees' Union called for the restoration of common standards across long-term care and assisted-living.
The union said inconsistency in sick-leave policies within the current system – which includes for-profit care, something Mackenzie called a legitimate but separate conversation – was among the top issues identified by its members as well.
According to an internal poll, the HEU said, one in six of its 20,000 members said they'd used up all of their paid leave during the pandemic.
The union is calling for the restoration of common wages, benefits and working conditions in long-term care in B.C.
Mackenzie noted the vast array of challenges of the pandemic in her report, including the heartache felt by those who lost loved ones.
One of those people still grieving is Rose Wong.
Her mom was one of 41 residents of Little Mountain Place who died following a COVID-19 outbreak.
"Just talking about her brings tears to my eyes,” Wong told CTV News Vancouver. “Just trying to cope living without her, that's (the) hard, hard part."
She supports the idea of more testing at care facilities, but she's also looking for answers about the outbreak at her mom's care facility.
"I do want to know how it got spread so fast,” she said. “Why it happened, how it happend. I don't want excuses. I want the truth."
Though the number of care homes facing outbreaks has dropped significantly, seniors are still being locked down because of exposures.
Dianna Green lives at a carehome in Cranbrook. She says her unit has been locked inside since late August.
"It's been really, really difficult,” she said. “All you can really do is really look out the window at everybody."
Mackenzie said sites are much safer now than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, as more is known about COVID-19 and as staff, residents and visitors get immunized against the disease.