By Stephen Petrick
New measures by the province to protect long-term care residents from COVID-19 seem necessary, but more work needs to be done to improve their quality of life long-term, said a local advocate.
The Ontario government announced on Dec. 28 that it would once again ban general visitors to long-term care facilities and halt resident day trips that are for social purposes. The rules are to protect the elderly from a devastating fifth wave of the pandemic, which has shattered records for daily numbers of new cases and has health care workers bracing for an influx of hospitalizations.
“It’s kind of a double whammy,” said Bonnie Roe, a lead member of the Haliburton-City of Kawartha Lakes Long-Term Care Coalition, which is advocating for higher standards of care. “We realize we have to keep our most vulnerable residents safe and that’s important. But it seems diametrically opposed to what’s happening in the rest of the province.”
She was referencing the fact that not all of Ontario is in shut down and other people are, generally, still free to attend big events. Sports teams, for example, were at the time of the announcement still able to host up to 1,000 fans in large stadiums. “It just doesn’t seem equitable to me; it doesn’t seem fair … We want them to be safe, but surely there’s a better way to do it.”
Roe, a retired registered nurse who once worked at Hyland Crest, said that the social isolation long-term care residents face poses a serious health problem, too. She was pleased that the provincial announcement mentioned that “designated caregivers may continue to enter long-term care homes,” meaning that some residents may have at least one loved one they’ll see frequently, but still more work needs to be done.
“It’s a step in the right direction. I’ll give (Minister of Long-Term Care) Rod Phillips credit for that, but that’s all I’m giving.”
Roe argued that homes are severely understaffed and many homes are private businesses, which means, if the wrong managers are in place, they can be driven more by profit than quality of care.
The coalition she’s involved with was born as a result of the scathing military report given to Ontario Premier Doug Ford in the spring of 2020, which revealed that the worst COVID-outbreaks in Ontario long-term care homes were a result of mismanagement and neglect. It was also in response to the tragedy at nearby Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, where nearly half of the 65 residents died of COVID in a short time frame.
Roe hopes the government will consider hiring more staff, hold more random inspections to ensure homes are up to code and bring in new standards that are designed to eliminate the feeling of residents being institutionalized.
“This is a key opportunity; the government can do things differently; look at how they can make a long-term care home more like a home and less like something used for profit.”
Meanwhile, the new restrictions and the reality of the fifth wave has led staff at the two Haliburton Highlands Health Services homes to spring into action. HHHS is the body that oversees Hyland Crest, a 62-bed home in Minden, and Highland Wood, a 30-bed home in Haliburton.
In an email, HHHS president and CEO Carolyn Plummer said the organization’s COVID-19 steering committee is meeting more frequently to make sure it’s understanding the new measures and taking every necessary step to keep residents safe, such as implementing screening measures, ensuring proper personal protection equipment is used and putting physical distancing markers in place. It’s also hosting booster vaccine clinics for staff and essential caregivers. She also addressed the fact that finding ways to keep morale up is important, too.
“Our incredible staff team is acutely aware of the physical and emotional impact of this current wave of COVID-19 on residents, patients, family members, and each other. Together, we continue to look for new and innovative ways to boost morale and support one another, including by ensuring families can conduct virtual visits with their loved ones in long-term care, providing mental health supports to residents and to our staff, and through safe activities.”
Plummer also explained that the public can support residents and staff in long-term care homes by doing their part to reduce the spread of COVID.
“The most important way the community can support residents, patients, and staff at HHHS is by following public health measures. This includes wearing masks, physical distancing, reducing the number of contacts they have, being immunized for COVID-19 (first, second, and booster doses), and being diligent about hand washing. The resilience, perseverance, and never-ending compassion of the HHHS staff team is nothing short of inspirational, but what they need most of all is for our community to do everything it can to stay healthy and safe.”