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Urgent action needed now for people in long-term care

COVID-19 outbreaks are continuing in long-term care homes as the second wave of the virus surges across the country. Homes in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa and other cities and towns are battling outbreaks. In Quebec, the government is sending in “swat teams” where infection rates in at least four homes range from 32 to 76 per cent of all residents.

To date, there have been more than 8,000 deaths in seniors’ homes due to COVID-19, representing more than 80 per cent of all the people who have died from COVID-19 in Canada, according to data compiled by freelance journalist Nora Loreto.

These deaths have revealed a national tragedy – we aren’t doing enough to ensure seniors have the care they need in their final years.

Long-term care homes face severe staffing shortages that the pandemic has made worse. In Quebec and Ontario, governments have had to call in support from the military, Red Cross, local hospitals and other sources because of the staffing shortages.

Four hours of direct care

This week, the Ontario government announced its commitment to a new standard that would see long-term care residents receive an average of four hours of direct care every day. This is a huge victory for families, seniors’ advocates, long-term care workers and their unions, as well as Council of Canadians’ members and supporters who have been calling for these changes for months, and in some cases, years.

This increased care commitment is long overdue, and it will help address some of the systemic problems in homes. It needs to be implemented immediately with binding legislation supporting it.

Shockingly, the Ford government says the better standards of care won’t be fully in place until 2024 or 2025 – after the next election.

The government should not play political games with seniors’ care. Three to four years is too long for people living and working in long-term care homes to wait.

Other provinces quicker to act

Other provinces have done more. In Quebec, the government offered financial incentives in May to attract and retain thousands of workers for long-term care homes. B.C. acted early in the pandemic, requiring workers to provide care in just one home, but in return, offering them more hours and better pay. B.C. is also hiring 7,000 additional workers and making their pay increases permanent.

Ontario, on the other hand, has consistently ignored all recommendations related to staffing in the homes. From a July 2019 public inquiry, recommendations from a government-led long-term care staffing study, recent urgent recommendations from its own COVID-19 commission and military reports, the Ford government is still failing to act with urgency to address the ongoing crisis.

Shockingly, the Ontario government also recently introduced legislation that will shield long-term care homes, many of them operated by for-profit corporations, from negligence lawsuits. Ontario currently has the highest percentage of for-profit homes compared to other provinces.

To date, more than 2,000 people have died in long-term care homes in the province.

The federal government must act when provinces won’t

In the throne speech opening Parliament, the federal government recently promised to “work with the provinces and territories to set new, national standards for long-term care so that seniors get the best support possible.” The Trudeau government also promised it “will look at further targeted measures for personal support workers who do an essential service helping the most vulnerable in our communities. Canada must better value their work and their contributions to our society.”

It’s time for the federal government to put these words into action, especially when provincial or territorial governments fall short.

In mid-October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc discussed standards for long-term care homes with their provincial and territorial counterparts, but to date, no announcements have been made.

The key to better care for seniors and others needing long-term care is a strong workforce. For too long, frontline workers in these homes have been devalued. Workers have seen their jobs piecemealed into part-time positions with low pay, no sick leave and few benefits, especially in for-profit facilities. Many of these workers are racialized and the majority are women. Their work carries an immense physical and mental toll, especially as they face ongoing infection risks.

Right now, as the second wave of COVID-19 surges, Ontario is operating with 30 per cent fewer long-term care workers.

According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, Canada has performed the worst in long-term care homes out of all OECD countries. We spend one-third of the OECD average on long-term care, we have fewer workers, and we have had almost double the number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes compared to other OECD countries.

They deserve better

Shoshana Forester Smith, 37, lives in a long-term care home in Winnipeg. She spoke with CTV News after “seeing how outbreaks of COVID-19 are affecting and killing people” in long-term care homes.

“We are not disposable,” Forester Smith said in a Zoom interview from her room. “Just because we’re in long-term care doesn’t mean that we’re just taking up space here waiting to die. Living under the constant threat of having COVID enter the facility is extremely stressful,” she said. “I don’t want to get COVID. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen to me if I get COVID.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact in long-term care homes. The people living and working in them should be every governments’ top priority.

Keep up the pressure and call on the federal government to bring homes into public hands, provide a coordinated seniors’ care strategy to be implemented in all provinces and territories, and ensure all long-term care workers have all the support, tools and equipment they need.