The Canadian Armed Forces stood at the ready for an entire month before being called in by the Ontario government to help stabilize several long-term care homes struggling to handle COVID-19 outbreaks.
The revelation came during testimony given to the COVID-19 Commission into Long-Term Care by Brigadier-General Conrad Mialkowski, who led the more than two-month operation.
Mialkowski testified his team was initially involved in the February repatriation and isolation of Canadians at CFB Trenton after ill fated cruises in the Atlantic, and that the mission required a “very strong connection” to the province and local health officials.
By the final week of March, Mialkowski told the commission, the CAF “started to understand that there would be a request for assistance” after Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency.
Despite being “closely aligned” with the province on the growing COVID-19 situation in Ontario, the Brigadier-General testified that his members were only called in one month later -- on Apr. 22.
“For the period of about a month, we were watching … how the transmission and infection rate was starting to increase and, whether or not that would be the initiation for a request for assistance from the Province of Ontario,” Mialkowski testified.
In the meantime, soldiers had assembled at a COVID-free camp at CFB Borden, where “civilian care teams” -- which would lend the desperately needed support to long-term care homes -- were created and trained.
The teams consisted of military personnel with medical expertise, as well as those who would perform non-essential tasks such as food delivery, housekeeping, bathing and changing of residents -- freeing up long-term care staff to focus on patient care and protection.
Once the official request came in -- on April 22 -- members of the military were deployed within two days, to five homes which were in the “greatest peril,” mirroring the CAF involvement in hard hit nursing homes in Quebec.
“We actually deployed at the end of April when Ontario and the long-term care facilities ultimately suffered sort of the greatest impacts of the disease,” Mialkowski said.
Mialkowski testified that once the military entered the homes -- Orchard Villa in Pickering, Altamont Care Community in Scarborough, Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke, Hawthorne Place in North York and Holland Christian Homes' Grace Manor in Brampton -- the scope of the staffing crisis quickly became evident.
“Some homes were in dire situations because their staff had been absolutely decimated,” Mialkowski. “Staff themselves were getting the illness. They were infecting themselves, their families. They were part of the transmission. A few, unfortunately, also succumbed to the disease.”
Mialkowski testified that the lack of staff, combined with the pressures of fighting the virus led to “medical, professional and technical issues” that the Armed Forces personnel detailed in a report which was eventually released to the public by Ford.
The report outlined the horrific conditions inside the homes, including abuse and neglect of residents, some of whom were left in soiled clothing, were force-fed, were overly sedated, and suffered extreme loneliness.
Mialkowski testified that soldiers worked “shoulder to shoulder” with staff to stabilize the homes and address some of the appalling issues, and eventually “overcame the crisis together.”
The CAF spent 67 days inside seven long-term care homes and only left in early July once they felt their assistance was “not longer needed.”
Despite waiting to be called on for nearly a month, however, the Brigadier-General told the commission he believes the military arrived at the “right time” to make a difference.
“We didn't come too early and weren't applied in incorrect locations, and we didn't come too late to actually not be of any value to be able to stabilize those homes,” Mialkowski testified.
“We are quite honestly very proud to have been called to help Ontario and Ontarians in their time of need.”