TORONTO -- Ontario’s minister of long-term care said that the province has been experiencing a “staffing crisis” with personal support workers (PSWs) well before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Speaking alongside Premier Doug Ford at Queen’s Park on Thursday afternoon, Merrilee Fullerton said that long-term care homes in Ontario have been plagued with staffing issues “for years.”

“This has been an ongoing issue and it was something that our long-term care ministry was addressing through an expert panel to understand how we could help our homes have the right support, get the proper amount of staff,” she said.

A lack of training among staff, as well as a shortage of nurses and PSWs, were just some of the serious allegations in a military report outlining the grim conditions at five of Ontario’s long-term care homes struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) report, which was released on Tuesday by the provincial government, made a number of startling claims, including reports of bug infestations, incidents of force feeding leading to “audible choking,” and patients who were heard “crying for help with staff not responding.”

Following the report’s release, one union representing about 60,000 health-care and community care workers said the province ignored their pleas for more inspections and investigations into the condition of long-term care homes, mentioning a low staff-to-resident ratio as one of the issues.

“Instead of helping, Doug Ford has made long-term care worse for workers and residents,” Service Employees International Union President Sharleen Stewart said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Doug Ford has refused to take action on increased staff-to-resident ratios. Doug Ford has capped the wages of the lowest-paid workers in long-term care. Doug Ford eliminated paid sick days for vulnerable essential workers. Doug Ford has limited inspections in long-term care. These decisions came from his desk.”

The premier has previously said that his government is going to be conducting “rigorous testing” of the five homes studied in the CAF report. On Wednesday he renewed that promise, saying that over the next three weeks there will be full inspections of “every home we’re concerned about.”

He also said the province will be doing “spot-checks on homes throughout the system.”

“No stone will be left unturned,” he said.

Ford also announced when that he would be extending the mandate of the Incident Management System (IMS) Long-Term Care Table, a panel of professionals whose job it is to deal with issues related to staffing, infection management, access to personal protective equipment and resources during an emergency.

“In the event of a surge of new COVID-19 cases in the community, we will be prepared,” Ford said. “My friends, we're sparing no expense, we're stopping at nothing because the stakes are too high. We will do whatever it takes in our power to protect our most vulnerable seniors and assure they get the care they deserve. That is my commitment to our long-term care residents, to staff who care for them, their families and to the people of Ontario.”

The IMS Long-Term Care Table meets daily to “make rapid decisions” that support long-term care homes. They were the group responsible for assisting and facilitating the Canadian military at five of the homes most in need.

Premier says he has been ‘taking bullets’ for union

According to the province, 45 inspections have been conducted at the five homes mentioned in the CAF report between June 2018 and May 2020.

Ford told reporters that long-term care homes in Ontario have been inspected over the phone, instead of in person, during the pandemic for safety reasons.

“I’m going to lay the chips on the table here,” Ford said. “I’ve been taking bullets every day for the union. When I’ve been asked if they were doing telephone calls for inspections, well the truth of the matter is they were refusing to go into these homes.”

“I understand they were scared, this was in April, this was the peak of the peak of COVID-19 and all heck was breaking loose and they were nervous about their families, they were worried about their health, I get it, they aren't medical professionals so I understand it, but I'm not going to continue taking bullets for something that there was no control that we had when the unions refused to go in.”

Ford went on to say that inspectors will now be entering long-term care facilities to conduct their assessments.

“They've been going back in and they are going to continue to go back in.”

Meanwhile, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren (Smokey) Thomas said in a statement Thursday that they never told inspectors not to go into long-term care homes during the pandemic.

“There was never one work refusal,” Thomas said. “Managers gave direction not to enter long-term care homes.”

“It’s unbelievable how government managers are keeping the premier in the dark about what has happened in long-term care homes.”

Thomas said the “real problem” with the system is that there are only 164 inspectors to cover Ontario’s 626 long-term care homes.  

“Managers in the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care are purposely misleading the Premier to cover up their own incompetence," he said.

Hospitals take over long-term care homes

On Wednesday, Ford announced his government would take over management at Orchard Villa in Pickering, Altamont Care Community in Scarborough, Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke, Hawthorne Place in North York, which were all the subject of the military report, and Camilla Care Centre in Mississauga.

“We are fully prepared to take over more homes if necessary. We are fully prepared to pull licences, to shut down facilities, if it is necessary,” Ford said during Wednesday’s news conference. “We will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”

The following hospitals will now be taking over the management of these facilities:

• Trillium health partners will take over Camilla Care Centre

• Unity Health Toronto will take over Eatonville Care Centre

• North York General Hospital will take over Hawthorne Place

• Scarborough General Hospital will take over Altamont Care Community

The province did not say which hospital would take over management of Orchard Villa.