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FORUM: St. George Community Living was a preventable tragedy (Jan. 2021)

January 27th, 2021 · 1 Comment

For-proft LTC home in University-Rosedale has Ontario’s largest COVID-19 outbreak

By Jessica Bell

St. George Community Living, which is located  in my riding of University-Rosedale, now has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario. As of January 5, 84 residents and 51 staff have 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 the Community Living centre 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 the pandemic 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 corroborated 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 them with protections and proper pay. 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. 

What can be done? In the short term, residents and staff at St. George need priority access to the COVID-19 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 pay (decently) enough staff to work at the home to provide safe and high-quality care. 

COVID-19 has shown that the 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 to 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 regulation on homes, and the laws should be enforced.

The pandemic 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 in order 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 the crisis. That’s immoral, yet it’s legal.

When profit is redirected back into care, safety and quality of life improves. 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 per 100 residents) and non-profit homes (2.8 per 100 residents). Sienna is one of the industry’s worst, with a COVID-19 death rate of 6.5 per 100 residents. These numbers represent people whose deaths could have been prevented. 

Tragedies allow us to reflect and learn. They are an opportunity for societies to evolve for the better, to 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. I am fighting for them, and I know that many of you share this fundamental value. 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. 

Jessica Bell is MPP for University—Rosedale.

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Tags: Annex · Opinion

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