Ontario launches plan to fight COVID-19 in beleaguered long-term care homes
TORONTO -- The Ontario government has unveiled its enhanced plan to fight COVID-19 in the province's long-term care homes.
The plan, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford described as “fortifying the ring” around such residences, will include stricter testing and screening measures in homes facing outbreaks as well as ensuring these facilities are always stocked with personal protective equipment.
“We will stop at nothing to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Ford said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The minister of long-term care laid out the specifics of the plan, dubbed Ontario’s COVID-19 Action Plan for Long-Term Care Homes.
“Over the next 48 hours, we will be launching more aggressive testing, screening and surveillance by screening all symptomatic staff and residents, as well as asymptomatic contacts of confirmed cases,” Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said.
Moreover, Fullerton says that testing will begin for asymptomatic residents and staff in “select homes” across the province to better understand how COVID-19 is spreading.
Fullerton said that the province will utilize “rapid deployment teams” from local hospitals to assist with infection prevention and control in affected facilities.
Working with Public Health Ontario, the minister also said that the government is even considering relocating some long-term care home residents to other facilities to improve isolation capacity.
“Every option is on the table and additional measures will be taken as we address this fast changing outbreak,” Fullerton said.
The plan also includes risk and capacity assessments for all homes as well as enhanced training and education for support staff who are working in these facilities.
These new measures complement an emergency order issued Tuesday that limits long-term care home staff to working at only one facility in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.
This was welcome news for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), Ontario Nurses' Association and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, all three of whom had been calling for staff to be restricted to a single facility.
They argued that unless the province ordered employers to keep the same staff, the virus would continue to spread to those most vulnerable.
However, Fullerton clarified that the order is not indefinite, and will expire 14 days after it was issued.
“This is a temporary measure to allow for a reduction of the spread of COVID-19.”
Staff members who do work at multiple facilities will be allowed to take a leave absence to accommodate the order, according to Fullerton.
Furthermore, The temporary emergency order will only come into effect on April 22, in order to give long-term care homes enough time to prepare.
“The actual implementation of that takes time because you have to deal with various contracts and negotiations and you have to deal with all of that, " Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said at a seperate news conference on Wednesay.
The province's new strategy was announced as long-term care residences continue to feel the devastating effects of COVID-19. On Wednesday morning, the province reported 98 outbreaks at long-term care homes across Ontario, which includes the deaths of 144 residents.
Asked why it took so long for the government to develop the plan to combat COVID-19 within long-term care homes, premier Ford reflected on his own experience.
“My heart breaks for these families; I’m facing it in my own family,” Ford said of his mother-in-law, a resident at West Park Long-Term Care home, which is already experiencing the effects of a COVID-19 outbreak firsthand.
“This wasn’t just the first thing that we’ve done, this is an enhancement of what we’ve already done.”
Ford’s government said they moved swiftly “months ago”, based on the recommendations by the province’s top doctor, to make sure there was proper screening in place as well as limiting visitors to long-term care homes in an effort to stop the spread.
“We are fighting with every single tool that we have, and we’re creating new tools, because the old tools were not enough, Fullerton said.
However, Horwath said the new measures are not good enough.
“We are concerned that there are huge loopholes in that emergency order. It still does not cover, for example, people who work for temp agencies that can be assigned to various homes,” Horwath said.
The plan also did not address the issues of workers being grossly underpaid and workers still doing part-time hours, Horwath said.
“I guess a baby step is better than no step whatsoever. But Mr. Ford’s passion needs to be followed up with action that’s actually going to hit the mark.”
Horwath said it is also unacceptable that these measures won’t go into effect until next week.
She said the province should have undertaken these measures to protect residents of long-term care homes weeks ago.
“Everybody knew long-term care was in a crisis,” Horwath said. “And so here we are now in the midst of this crisis, and it shouldn’t be another week.”