Reports Describe Ontario’s Lack of Preparedness Ahead of COVID-19 in Long-Term Care

There’s no question that some of Ontario’s long-term care facilities and nursing homes failed to provide an adequate standard of care to residents during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our COVID-19 class action lawyers have initiated legal proceedings against a number of these operators in hopes of providing closure and compensation to hundreds of families who lost loved ones during the first year of the pandemic.

Now, though, the vast majority of Ontario’s long-term care residents have been vaccinated and COVID-related deaths have all but evaporated. More than 3,750 residents died during the first two waves of infections; less than 20 passed away in March and April 2021, even as infections surged to unprecedented new heights across the province, and deadlier, more transmissible variants took hold.

With the crisis in long-term care homes now nearing an end, everyone from government officials to residents’ advocates to COVID-19 class action lawyers are seeking to understand how it came to pass in the first place. Although negligent facilities deserve some of the blame, so too do the province’s lawmakers. Three new reports – one from the CBC, one from the province’s Auditor General, and one from its independent Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission – shed light on how the missteps and inactions of the current and previous provincial governments created an environment where such a catastrophe could play out.

The CBC’s report, released under the broadcasters CBC Investigates imprint, focused on the provincial government’s preparation during February, March, and April 2020. Reporters requested ‘all reports, memos and briefing notes concerning the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 and long-term care homes’ from the ministries of Health and Long-Term Care. They found that only a small number of documents mentioned long-term care in February, with far more emphasis placed on preparing the hospital system. They also found that, even by the time the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic in March, many measures designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the long-term care system were either not yet tabled or not yet put into practice.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report focused on long-standing issues within the province’s long-term care system, as well as the province’s failure to learn from the 2003 SARS outbreak. The investigation found that long-term care homes were not required to prepare for a pandemic, and that issues like staffing shortages, inconsistent infection prevention and control practices, overcrowding, and the disconnect between long-term care and other branches of Ontario’s healthcare infrastructure all contributed to the severity of the province’s outbreak.

“Despite very specific observations and recommendations on preparing for future SARS-like outbreaks by our Office and others, actions taken over the years have been insufficient to ensure that we would be better prepared as a province – and Ontario’s long-term care homes were among the first to be impacted,” Lysyk said after issuing the report, according to a release from the Auditor General’s office. “Unfortunately, neither the Ministry of Long-Term Care, nor the long-term care sector was sufficiently positioned, prepared or equipped to respond to the issues created by the pandemic in an expedient and effective way.”

The report from the province’s Long-Term Care COVID Commission, released April 30, also concludes that Ontario’s long-term care sector was drastically unprepared for the pandemic. It blames the sitting government’s slow decision-making, the failure to learn from the 2003 SARS outbreak, and decades of systemic neglect, among other factors.

“Many of the challenges that had festered in the long-term care sector for decades – chronic underfunding, severe staffing shortages, outdated infrastructure and poor oversight – contributed to deadly consequences for Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens during the pandemic,” the report reads.

Regarding the Ford government’s failure to quickly establish a response plan, it reads: “Without an established, practiced plan in place, the government found itself making up its emergency response as it went along. As noted, a pandemic is an inopportune time to create a nuanced, well-thought-out and thorough response plan.”

In its report, the commission calls for urgent changes to the long-term care system, including the development of new facilities, addressing staffing shortages, and improving training. It also called into question the benefit of investor-owned properties, stating: “Care should be the sole focus of the entities responsible for long-term care homes.”

Together, the three reports paint a damning picture of the provincial government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in Ontario’s long-term care system. They also provide an explanation of – if not an excuse for – the circumstances that led to widespread negligence in the province’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the pandemic. With Ontario’s population aging rapidly, we can only hope that the lessons learned from COVID-19 will be more proactively applied than those learned during SARS.

If a member of your family has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario’s long-term care system, reach out to Will Davidson LLP today. Our team of COVID-19 class action lawyers is prepared to field your call and explain your legal options.

Image: Shutterstock

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