Across Canada, long term care facilities are emerging as epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic, with half the country’s pandemic deaths occurring in such facilities.
We’ve all heard the horrific stories coming out of Bobcaygen and Dorval of long term care facilities overrun with COVID-19, and patients and grandparents dying alone and separated from their family in time of need. Police are investigating the situation in Dorval.
Perhaps ominously, a local resident in Bobcaygen told the Toronto Star there was nothing particularly special about the facility there that became COVID-19 epicentre. “We were just first,” said Doug Whalen, president of the Bobcaygeon Curling Club.
He’s right, of course.
The problems that led to the outbreak there and at similar homes across Canada are deep rooted and systemic.
In fact, the warning signs have been there for a long time, and cannot be ignored any longer.
For years, Unifor has been at the forefront of unions fighting for increased funding and better working conditions in long term care facilities. We have pointed out that the reliance on part time and casual staff has forced many to take on more than one job to make ends meet. Chronic staff shortages have meant that residents do not get the care they need or deserve.
Such working conditions make the transmission of illness from one facility to another much more likely. In a pandemic, that has proven to be deadly.
Thankfully, some jurisdictions are starting to take note and are acting. British Columbia, for instance, has directed staff to the frontlines at long term care centres and raised the wages of LTC workers by as much as $7 an hour. Perhaps as importantly, the province took these measures early on in the pandemic.
Other provinces are slower to act, and even then only begrudgingly.
Ontario and Nova Scotia, for instance, continued to ignore staffing shortages in long-term care, as well as the fact that low compensation and difficult working conditions make recruiting and retaining staff extremely difficult.
In fact, Ontario made it easier for facilities to rely on casual staff, volunteers and potentially unqualified people off the street to work in the homes by allowing these employers to ignore collective agreements.
Unlike B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia have not yet pushed for higher wages in long term care during the COVID crisis, and while some individual employers have heeded Unifor’s call for premium pay of $3 an hour for long-term care workers, the uptake has been slow without the other provinces stepping up.
Ontario did announce Tuesday, finally, that it will limit long term care staff to work only at one facility. However, by not following B.C.’s example to oversee staffing and set standardized compensation, Ontario may potentially have left long term care facilities vulnerable to short staffing, and workers unable to get enough hours to pay their bills.
As well, neither Ontario nor Nova Scotia has adequately dealt with the issue of screening, Personal Protective Equipment, (PPE) and worker safety in a timely manner, despite a shortage of PPEs.
Worse, some of the measures being taken are temporary, for the duration of the pandemic, when they need to be permanent.
For too long, working conditions, along with living conditions, have been allowed to deteriorate in the face of inadequate funding.
One lesson we need to take from all this is that we can’t just keep rolling the dice, cutting spending and taxes, and hope that things will go our way. That kind of approach only leaves us vulnerable to disaster, as we are seeing now.
Our lean and mean approach to health care eventually comes at a huge cost. To prevent that, we need to be proactive and ensure that the changes being made to address the pandemic, brought in to improve the health protections for residents and staff, are made permanent.
The residents deserve no less, and neither do the workers who have proven their dedication to the job throughout this crisis.