National Post (National Edition)

LTC failures still impossible to accept

- DEREK H. BURNEY Derek H. Burney was chief of staff to the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney from 1987-89 and ambassador to the United States of America from 1989-93.

The Ontario Commission reviewing the performanc­e of that province's long-term care facilities indicated in spades how and why nearly 4,000 endangered seniors died in long term care homes from COVID-19, many of whom also suffered from dehydratio­n, malnourish­ment and loneliness. This was a colossal, system failure and was not confined to Ontario.

Infections and death rates in Ontario's LTC homes were “among the worst in the world.” Chronic underfundi­ng, staffing deficienci­es, outdated infrastruc­ture (old homes with three or four beds per room and one bathroom) and poor oversight combined to take a terrible toll.

Since the onset of the pandemic, one certainty has been that elderly Canadians, notably those with pre-existing conditions, would be most vulnerable. Why was this group not given maximum priority across Canada?

The stories revealed by the commission are heartbreak­ing — a pattern of gross neglect that affected not only the victims but also their families. Yet where is the accountabi­lity for the operators, the doctors and care givers responsibl­e for the breakdown? Families who ordinarily filled in to offset the chronic lack of care were denied the opportunit­y to assist. Erratic, unwarrante­d restrictio­ns made matters worse.

The commission's critique of the lack of preparedne­ss is shocking. Ninety per cent of the stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment had expired or been destroyed. There was no plan for a surge of workers to respond to a pandemic. In most of the homes affected, staffing collapsed. Many lacked crucial training in infectious diseases. Without adequate PPE, staff, including doctors, did not feel safe at work. Some chose to stay home to protect themselves and their families “making an already precarious situation worse.”

Demands for COVID testing vastly outpaced capacity.

Why was a scathing military report on conditions in five LTC facilities from over a year ago disregarde­d? More importantl­y, why was the military not mobilized to alleviate the staffing shortfalls? Was it because the senior echelon was preoccupie­d with their own problems?

LTC in Ontario is funded primarily by the provincial government but delivered by a hodgepodge of municipal, not-forprofit and for-profit providers to supply services that ostensibly meet legislativ­e standards. But inspection capabiliti­es are meagre and enforcemen­t measures are lax. The Commission recommende­d a strategy that separates constructi­on from care, confining the for-profit sector to the former only.

Regrettabl­y, the commission's terms of reference did not allow it to make findings of fact with respect to civil or criminal responsibi­lity of any person or organizati­on. Furthermor­e, the government quickly moved to raise the burden of proof for families suing LTC homes for alleged negligence. They now must prove “gross negligence” on the part of LTC operators. An act of expediency otherwise known as “covering your tracks.”

This is a scandal that cannot be ignored. As the new Minister for LTC, Rod Phillips should begin by implementi­ng expeditiou­sly all the commission's recommenda­tions. For him, it may be the road to redemption. Given demographi­c trends, the LTC system needs a major overhaul and a much higher priority.

At the national level, the federal government is reportedly contemplat­ing an election call once COVID vaccinatio­n rates belatedly reach an acceptable level and restrictio­ns imposed due to the pandemic are relaxed. It would be prudent for the government not to run on its COVID record and hope that the public memory is short. Once independen­t studies are conducted, they will certainly demonstrat­e that a relatively dismal performanc­e and a lack of leadership at various levels left Canada consistent­ly at the back of the developed world pack.

The distinctio­n between the performanc­e of the U.S. and Canada was clear from vastly different attendance numbers allowed during the Stanley Cup finals. Both countries fumbled badly on the pandemic at the beginning. Neither was properly prepared to cope.

Thanks in large part to vaccine preparatio­n at “warp speed” through a combined private/public sector initiative, America improved dramatical­ly, and is quickly returning to normal. Economic recovery is rapidly taking hold.

Neither is happening in Canada at the same pace. Improperly prepared and spectacula­rly lax on assessing the risk from COVID we languish still with inconsiste­nt protocols and erratic guidelines dictated by Public Health “experts”, some of whom give “science” a bad name. The “make it up on the fly” approach, meekly endorsed by politician­s supposedly in charge, proved confusing and shattered public trust.

The basic rights of Canadians are being abused daily by authoritar­ian practices, including blanket arrests and dubious quarantine rules.

The bizarre “do or don't” rulings on AstraZenec­a represent a troubling glitch. Thousands of Canadians accepted on faith advice from health care authoritie­s. What exactly are those who accepted two doses of AstraZenec­a supposed to do and who should they trust?

Restrictio­ns on travel within Canada and over the U.S. border are arbitrary and severely damaging, especially to small businesses relying on tourism. The federal government dilly dallied for weeks before announcing that vaccinated Americans can travel here beginning Aug. 9. Perhaps the prospect of an election is having a therapeuti­c effect.

To add a measure of intrigue, if not malfeasanc­e, there is also the mysterious firing of two Chinese scientists at Canada's highest security virus laboratory in Manitoba. Should not Parliament and the public have access to documents that would reveal why this action was taken? Without substantia­tion, claims of national security are flimsy.

The bumbling, slipshod COVID response by many and the travesty at LTC facilities in Ontario reveal serious deficienci­es in leadership and responsibi­lity that leave the public poorly served, confused and distrustfu­l. A measure of accountabi­lity if not culpabilit­y is in order.

Are we too willing to accept mediocre as the standard for public services? Is that why we are grateful for small mercies from a flawed performanc­e, or are we subdued into apathy out of fear that the situation could be worse? Whatever the reason, it is proof of the adage that people deserve the government­s they get.


 ?? VERONICA HENRI / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES ?? Diane Colangelo visits her 86-year-old mother Patricia through a window at the Orchard Villa long-term care home
in Pickering not long after the COVID pandemic began in 2020. Both daughter and mother were in tears.
VERONICA HENRI / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES Diane Colangelo visits her 86-year-old mother Patricia through a window at the Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering not long after the COVID pandemic began in 2020. Both daughter and mother were in tears.

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