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Judy Haiven: COVID-19 fallout – Residents of long term care facilities treated like prisoners

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – “We’re out living our lives and everything is expanding, except for our seniors. They’re being kept in a box,” These are the words of Terry Stanislow, who, along with her sister Stefanie, stood outside of Camp Hill Veteran’s Memorial Hospital in Halifax on August 4. They carried protest signs to object to the severe restrictions imposed on seniors – five months after the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

The Stanislows’ 89-year-old father is a resident of Camp Hill. His daughters could not visit him from March until June: they are not the only ones. Walking with the sisters were Holly Crooks and her sister. Their mother, aged 90, is a resident of Northwood. The daughters are demanding a private visit with their mother; now the only visits permitted are with a staff member close by to “monitor” the family. 

Said Crooks, “This is our mother and we don’t think we’re ever going to be able to have a private visit with her ever again. She’s 90. There’s not much time left.”

Every week there is a sprinkling of letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper. Relatives of the elderly frequently call in to open-mic radio programs to alert the public about what they and their loved ones have to go through—just for a visit.

Yet Covid has all but disappeared out in the community.  For days in Nova Scotia, there were no new cases of Covid. Today there are three in the north area of the province. Everyone seems to be complying with mask-wearing indoors, in public spaces, in shops, and on buses.  Most people are social distancing and staying two metres away from one another.

Still, every bar that wants to open, is open, with masked servers and distanced seating. Outdoor patios at bars abound. Cafes are open with limited and distanced seating, takeaway windows and even outdoor seating. Many indoor gyms are open. Libraries and malls are open. Playgrounds, parks and some pools are open. People are encouraged to travel within the Atlantic bubble to visit family.

Of course the McNeil government, in an attempt to save money, refuses to routinely test. Last week saw a daily average of 200 tests—which, as long as there are no new cases, sounds just fine. It’s hard to get a test and a person has to jump through some hoops, but no one seems to mind in this glorious summer weather. Yet it is the McNeil government along with its sidekick, Dr Robert Strang the province’s medical officer of health, who have decided to keep long term care homes under lockdown.

As everyone knows, 53 seniors died at Northwood, and scores got very sick with Covid, in arguably the best and most progressive long term care facility in Nova Scotia.  The residents were not to blame.The seniors died because of three main reasons.  

First, many Northwood seniors lived in rooms of double and triple occupancy, plus shared bathrooms. In these circumstances, the virus easily spread.  

Second, it took weeks for patients who tested positive for Covid to be isolated in separate rooms on a separate floor of Northwood. 

Third, the federal government’s “Covid pay” to Nova Scotia (and to all provinces) earmarked as top-ups for workers in nursing homes, care facilities and essential jobs was withheld by the provincial government for several weeks. From 2017, nursing home workers and care assistants had had their hours reduced because of the Liberal government’s cuts to long term care. Reduced hours meant less income for the hourly paid care staff. So many staff had to work two and sometimes three jobs, at other nursing homes, to earn a living. That meant Covid could have been carried in by staff who also worked at other jobs. By June the government finally doled out the top-up and required that workers stop working at more than one facility. This requirement was mandated two months later than in other provinces.

In July, the government relaxed some rules around visiting long term care facilities. But each facility is entitled to impose its own rules – as long as they do not fall below the government’s standard. Here are the rules for one large chain of nursing homes in Nova Scotia:

1.     Indoors, only up to three visitors can be “designated”, but only one person can visit on any one visit. Everyone has to wear a medical mask.

2.     Physical distancing (two metres) must be observed except for brief contact:  usually a hug.

3.     Visits have to be pre-scheduled.  Visits are restricted to 15 to 30 minutes maximum. No drop-ins.

4.     The facility designates a location for a visit – preferably near an entrance.

5.     All visitors are screened by the facility and must practice proper hygiene.

6.     No visitors under age 16 are allowed; no dogs allowed.

7.     Staff must escort the visitor to and from the visit and monitor throughout.

8.     The area has to be cleaned before and after each visit.

9.     Visitors cannot bring in snacks, coffee or tea.

Residents are lonely, and feel forgotten. No wonder. One care ‘home’ says that residents are permitted off site recreation which means up to 10 residents including driver and staff are allowed to get into a bus and drive around. This is a “sightseeing only” event and residents are not permitted to disembark. So they can drive the streets on the perimeter of the Public Gardens, for instance, but not get out to smell the flowers.

Outdoor visits are a little easier. Five (up from two) can visit at one time (but still no children). Medical masks must be worn by residents, but non-medical masks should be worn by visitors. A brief hug is permitted, but otherwise social distancing must be observed. No one can bring in food or drinks for the visit.

Why are our elderly treated like prisoners? Why are they suffering and their families and friends suffering? The simple answer boils down to the question of “risk”.

The McNeil government is terrified of another Covid outbreak. The 132 long term care homes, many of which are privately owned and operated, are also afraid of an outbreak—they don’t want to assume the risk of sick and dying residents. They don’t want to be sued for negligence by bereaved families.

At Northwood, the families of some of the 53 dead have launched a class action lawsuit against Northwood and the province. The families claim the institution put residents’ lives at risk during the Covid crisis. In addition to citing the problem of double and triple bunking, the lawsuit also notes that PPE (personal protective equipment) for staff was not available when needed, and that employees were allowed to work at more than one institution. The lawsuit also explains that the province refused to help fund the addition of three extra floors to the central Northwood building. The extra storeys would have provided single rooms to many residents.

After the long spring of lockdown, the whole province has opened– to a large degree. Yet residents of long term care and their families see barely any difference in the prison-like conditions inside long term care. Many residents have no voice and no advocate; many are disabled and needy. 

The McNeil government and Dr Strang are playing into the hands of the nursing home owners and managers to minimize their risk. The government first did this by categorically denying the need for a public inquiry into the 53 deaths and the hundreds of ill residents.

Now McNeil and Dr Strang are screwing down the lid on long term care facilities so that Covid cannot creep in, but neither can the joy of living and the celebration of long lives lived. Relatives and long term care residents are demanding a loosening of restrictions and a respect that, so far, this government has not paid them. 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights discrimination, bullying and racism in the workplace.  Contact her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

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  1. This cruel treatment of residents of long-term care homes is also an abuse of their human rights. The residents should be outdoors and with their loved ones as much as they choose. The older I get, the more I realize that time with loved ones and in nature is the only thing that matters. Laughter and hugs and nature are the most powerful healers. To taking away Agency and Autonomy from vulnerable populations is the action of cowards and ignoramuses.

    1. The staffing levels in our nursing homes is the same as before the pandemic, next to nothing. I feel the seniors get less help because of staff unwillingness to have to done and doff PPE so they leave residents especially those on isolation (totally isolated). I don’t see why a senior when the weather is fair and no visitors outside – can’t have their window open to get fresh air. The restrictions are out of control when kids are all over the place not even getting tested and spreading it like wildfire. Children get to have their windows open to have fresh air…?doesn’t make sense.

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