Island LTC braces for possible second wave

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MANITOULIN – Health experts, politicians, front-line workers and family members have described the way COVID-19 has impacted Canadian long-term care (LTC) homes as a failure, sparking public inquiries and calls to reckon with the high number of deaths within these facilities that outpaced many countries.

Manitoulin Island had two LTC scares during the first wave but cases have recently begun to surge once more in Sudbury, including two new outbreaks within the past two weeks, renewing questions about how such facilities will fare when cases trend upward once more.

Canadians seem to be shocked by the level of care older people need, said Dr. Mike Bedard, one of the Island’s leaders in efforts to prevent and contain COVID-19. He said this is evident in the conditions of these facilities and if the public had been attuned to their status they might have expected the devastating outcome.

Wikwemikong Nursing Home (WNH) was the Island home that experienced a COVID-19 scare in the first wave of the pandemic in Canada. Fortunately, the individual later tested negative twice, though the case remained registered as an outbreak.

“We were in disbelief,” said WNH administrator Cheryl Osawabine-Peltier, who said her team was shocked because they had taken extensive precautions when the virus began to circulate in Canada. The entire community of Wiikwemkoong was additionally under a travel restriction, with a checkpoint set up at the only road access point.

The case’s later results as negative were reassuring to Ms. Osawabine-Peltier, especially considering her staff’s commitment to prevent any spread.

“They really came together. Some of them moved out of their homes and into our community; Rainbow Lodge put up some accommodations for our staff so they weren’t exposing their own families after that positive test result, because they were identified as close contacts,” she said.

Going through that experience, however, has galvanized the team and might have been a blessing in disguise heading into a possible second wave.

“What we went through was a real test for us,” said Ms. Osawabine-Peltier. “We realized where we needed to step up a little bit but it also showed how strong our staff is. … The sacrifices by our staff made us realize that we can handle an outbreak if we ever need to, but we hope that never happens.”

The home has since reopened to family visits and swabbing requirements are in place for visitors. All staff in the home must get tested twice per month.

“We were always way ahead of (regulations that) got put in place, like staff only working at one centre—we were already doing that,” said Ms. Osawabine-Peltier.

The home is ready to reduce family visits should the threat level increase. Ms. Osawabine-Peltier said open communication among all employees at the home was crucial; all staff joined a meeting last week to discuss the recent COVID-positive visitor to Manitoulin Golf in Gore Bay as well as the 22 new cases within two weeks in the Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) catchment area.

She added that the staff at WNH are happy to undergo regular swab tests, despite the discomfort they cause.

“They don’t like (the swab process) but they do it because they love the residents here. They’re like a family,” she said.

The Expositor contacted the administrators of the Manitoulin Lodge Nursing Home in Gore Bay as well as the Manitoulin Centennial Manor in Little Current.

Lodge administrator Sue Farren was out of the office but Stephanie Barber, a spokesperson for Jarlette Health Services (the operator of the Lodge), wrote an email response to The Expositor’s inquiry about the home’s readiness for a second wave.

“In tandem with our proactive infection prevention and control practices, which remain in effect in the home and will for the foreseeable future, we continue to maintain our PPE supplies and monitor our staffing while focusing our efforts on the comfort, safety and well-being of all those we serve,” Ms. Barber stated.

She added that Jarlette is confident in the practices and protocols currently in place and, in the event of a second wave, the Lodge is ready to handle the pressure while adapting to Ministry of Health guidelines as they evolve.

In a follow-up question asking about what risks may remain, Ms. Barber said the home was continuing a proactive approach to the outbreak and was “confident” it could handle a second wave.

Manitoulin Centennial Manor administrator Tamara Beam did not respond to multiple requests for comment; The Expositor later received an email from Extendicare declining an interview, but offering a statement on behalf of regional director Keith Clement.

“The health care community learned a great deal about COVID-19 in the first wave and we are using that information to guide our practices and protect our residents,” read Mr. Clement’s statement, adding that resident and staff health and safety is the organization’s highest priority.

“Regular testing of staff is our best line of defence to keep community spread out of our long-term care homes,” he stated, adding that the Manor has seen 280 tests and Extendicare has identified 67 asymptomatic staff members in Ontario thus far. “Simply put, we can’t fight the virus if we don’t know where it is.”

Mr. Clement’s statement said Extendicare’s national reach will aid in PPE procurement and said it would continue working with PHSD to ensure quick test results.

“We also learned during the first wave of COVID-19 that stable staffing levels are critical to a long-term care home’s success in managing an outbreak and removing the virus from a home. We have hired additional staff to help ensure our homes are in the best position ahead of a potential second wave,” read the statement.

Staffing has been a deficiency across Canada. Ontario Health Coalition recently released a study of 150 LTC workers at several dozen homes in the province. Of the homes sampled, 95 percent have faced staff shortages during the pandemic which has jeopardized patient care quality.

The Ontario government has acknowledged the staffing crisis and offered a $4 per hour pandemic pay bonus to eligible front-line workers. This is partly intended to entice more people to become personal support workers, registered nurses and registered practical nurses within the sector to address shortfalls.

Last week, the Ford government announced an independent commission into COVID-19 and LTC, with the aim of improving the system. Its findings are expected by April 2021.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there was one outbreak on Manitoulin island, at Wikwemikong Nursing Home, which later turned out to be negative. In fact, there was also an outbreak declared at Manitoulin Lodge in Gore Bay when a single employee tested positive.