St. George Care Community, which is located on St. George St in my riding of University Rosedale, now has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario. As of January 5, there are 84 active resident cases and 51 active staff cases of COVID-19, and 6 residents have died. The staff and residents need help now, and we, as a society, need to change the laws of our province to stop these preventable tragedies from happening again.
Let me tell you about St. George. I have visited St. George Care Community during better times. The residents are a mix of seniors and younger people with big challenges. The staff are dedicated and caring. The building is also old, and many residents live four to a room. St. George is managed by Sienna, one of Ontario’s largest for-profit long-term care home chains.
Sienna management has made assurances that the outbreak at St. George is being managed sufficiently, but the staff I have spoken to tell a different story. They complain of chronic staffing shortages that have existed for years. They talk of having staff ratios so low during COVID that sometimes just one person is responsible for 30 to 49 people at night. They talk of nurses having to do a deep cleaning of the home themselves because there are not enough professional cleaners to do the job. They talk about being angry and scared.
Staff reports about conditions at the home are also bolstered by a review of government inspections of St. George, which show recent incidents of preventable death and neglect.
These workers have asked for anonymity because they fear they’ll be persecuted at work if they speak out. I believe them. It is shocking to me that the Ontario Government can praise essential healthcare workers with one breath, yet fail to pass laws to provide workers with the workplace protections (and proper pay) they deserve so they can speak out about the conditions in long term care homes. This is especially important now because many residents living in homes under outbreak are isolated, with family members being unable to visit - and complain. We have asked for whistleblower protection for frontline workers, but the Government rejected our demand. They shouldn’t.
What can be done? In the short term, residents and staff at St. George need priority access to the vaccine, and that is happening, albeit not as fast as it should be.
St. George staff and residents also urgently need more staff, including clinical staff. It is good to hear that the University Hospital Network has now temporarily taken over the facility and is directing hospital staff to work at the home.
The problem, however, is that these exhausted staff are coming from hospitals that are facing staff shortages of their own. Hospitals are also providing these resources from their own budgets, and despite assurances from the government that they will be reimbursed for their costs, the money has not yet arrived.
It is also Sienna’s responsibility to immediately recruit and decently pay enough staff to work at the home to provide safe and high-quality care.
Long term, COVID-19 has shown that Ontario long term care home system must be fundamentally transformed. There needs to be a guarantee of four hours of staff care a day for each person – which the government recently agreed after years of advocacy from us, families, and staff. Staff, especially personal support workers, should be paid properly. The government needs to build more homes. There should be tougher regulations on homes, and the laws should be enforced.
COVID-19 has also demonstrated that a for-profit long-term care system just doesn't work. It doesn't work because it means management has to reconcile daily with the impossible question of how much money can they siphon from staff and the care of vulnerable people to give to owners, who already have enough.
Take the case of Sienna. Sienna was the subject of a recent Star investigation revealing the company gave out $43 million in dividends to shareholders during the first wave of COVID-19, despite receiving $53 million in provincial government funding to help them manage their homes during COVID-19. That’s immoral, yet it’s legal.
When profit is redirected back into care, safety, and quality of life improve. The facts speak for themselves. A report by CBC’s marketplace revealed that the death rate from COVID-19 in for-profit homes is 5.8 per 100 residents, far exceeding the death rate in municipally run homes (1.8) and non-profit homes (2.8). Sienna is one of the industry's worst, with a death rate from COVID of 6.5. These aren’t statistics. These are people that shouldn’t have died.
Tragedies allow us to reflect and learn. They are an opportunity for humanity to evolve for the better, and right wrongs. In a caring and democratic city like ours, vulnerable people should be treated with compassion, love, and dignity, not left alone in neglect. It is also what I am fighting for, and I know, based on the many calls and emails I get from residents of University Rosedale, that many of you share these values too. We are better than this. Please reach out to my office if you want to get updates or get involved in improving the state of long term care. It’s going to take all of us.