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NEWS: Kensington Gardens loses eight (May 2020)

June 15th, 2020 · No Comments

Kensington and other seniors’ homes in Annex very well prepared

By Nicole Stoffman

Coronavirus has hit long term care homes and retirement homes hard, accounting for 12% of all Toronto’s cases but 35% of all the city’s deaths, according to data from the National Institute on Ageing and Toronto Public health. As a percentage of Toronto’s cases, 61, or 6.5%, and 8 deaths, or 4%, are in the Gleaner’s coverage area. All of the eight deaths have been at Kensington Gardens, at the time of writing.

Kensington Gardens faced the largest outbreak of any seniors’ home in the Annex, with 29 cases, seven of them amongst staff, and eight deaths. All eight deaths occurred in the most acute ward, amongst residents with advanced dementia or Alzheimers. 

The outbreak, one of 38 across the city, was most probably spread by an asymptomatic staff member, whose mother had just returned from the U.K and who subsequently developed symptoms. When it spread to Kensington Gardens’ “lockdown unit,” in the north building, it spread like wildfire. This unit is for patients referred to as “the wanderers”, the residents with significant behavioural issues.

Kensington Gardens is a 350 bed long term care home operated by Kensington Health, a registered charity that also runs an eye surgery institute, screening clinic, hospice, and many other programs and services. Formerly the Doctor’s Hospital, the campus has been serving the health needs of the Kensington Market community for 100 years.

When symptomatic staff in the long-term care home began following protocols to self-quarantine for 14 days, CEO John Yip put out a call for volunteers to replace them. Thirty staff from across the organization answered. Knowing he could not ask them to do something he wouldn’t do himself, Yip bought himself some scrubs, an N95 mask, and a washable gown. He’s worked as an aide on the affected unit for 102 days, feeding bedridden residents.

The Ontario Ministry of Health did not begin purchasing additional personal protective equipment for long-term care homes until March 17. Fortunately, Yip had swung into action in February. Realizing Kensington had only a  two-week supply, he instructed staff to order PPE from Amazon, Walmart, “whatever we could get our hands on that was good quality,” he said. It was a good thing he did: PPE ordered from their usual supplier in early March did not arrive until May 5.

Yip implemented outbreak protocols, such as universal masking and limiting staff to one workplace at the end of March, two weeks and three weeks, respectively, before those measures were mandated by Toronto Public Health and the province. A mobile team from their partner, Women’s College Hospital, tested all staff and residents starting March 12, including in the less acute South building, long before universal testing was mandated by the province on April 22.

As of the Gleaner’s May 6 interview with Mr. Yip, the south building was COVID-free, the lockdown unit had been declared out of outbreak, and the remaining residents were recovering well. 

“Residents who were bedridden are wandering again, which to me is healthy,” said Mr. Yip. “They’re eating. My guys, that I see, were struggling to eat, and they’re now helping themselves to seconds.”

In other good news, Kensington’s senior team is already planning repatriating staff back to their home positions, as they ramp up their ambulatory-surgical operations. 

“This is an unbelievable example of a team,” said Yip. “Colleagues helping colleagues.”

Of the eight seniors’ homes in the Gleaner’s coverage area, Kensington Gardens is the third largest after Castleview-Wychwood (capacity 456), and Christie Gardens (capacity 400). Castleview-Wychwood, a municipally run home, has had two staff cases, and Christie Gardens, a non profit retirement home, is COVID-free as of the beginning of May, after an outbreak of 22 cases, according to data from Toronto Public Health. All have recovered.

Castleview-Wychwood did not respond to the Gleaner’s request for comment. The remaining five homes, which range in capacity from 99 to 238 residents, have had 1-5 cases of COVID-19.

Christie Gardens’ CEO Heather Janes attributes the quick recovery of her home to its partnership with Mount Sinai Hospital, which ramped up April 18. The hospital provided on site testing, risk assessment, and PPE, including over 1,000 disposable gowns, just when they were about to run out. Two weeks later, they were through the worst of it.

Christie Gardens found housing for 18 of their staff, who had been away from their families for two months at the time of writing. The only two coronavirus infections at Christie Gardens were among staff. Of the 61 infections in seniors’ homes across the Annex, 16 were staff cases.

Janes also attributes the home’s complete recovery to the large cohort of independent residents, who live in apartments with their own kitchens, and respected her request that they stay in their suites for three weeks. 

“It’s a highly educated crowd,” says Janes, proudly, “a lot of former politicians and profs from U of T.”

Meals, a hallway exercise program, mail and other services were delivered to their doors. “If you walk through the hallways, you wouldn’t believe the notes on people’s doors, thanking staff for ‘caring for us’. ”

Ninety percent of cases at Christie Gardens were asymptomatic. 

“COVID-19 is so different from any other kind of flu outbreak,” said Janes. 

“We have not done a good job as a province, and as a country on contact tracing, like other jurisdictions,” asserted Yip. “Had we done contact tracing of all international travelers at that time, we would have saved eight lives here, guaranteed.”

 There might still be other outbreaks, yet the stories at Kensington and Christie Gardens suggest that a proper PPE stockpile and early testing of both staff and residents kept the virus in check. 

If there is a silver lining in all of this, perhaps it is to draw attention to the importance of hospitals partnering with seniors’ homes in times of crisis, as witnessed right here in the Annex. 

“Our partnership with Women’s College has helped tremendously. We’ve had a partnership with them pre-COVID, but we drew on that existing relationship for them to come help us,” explained Yip. “ Without them, the numbers would have been drastically different. The testing and protective equipment that they supplied saved lives.”

Christie Gardens’ partnership with Mount Sinai was not pre-existing, and how it came to be still mystifies CEO Heather Janes, who suspects one of her residents made it happen.  It allowed them to start testing about three weeks before the ministry of health and local health networks were able to. “I have been in this business almost thirty years,” said Janes. “I have never-seen a hospital-nursing home partnership like this. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to say a proper thank you to the folks at Sinai.”

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