Editorial: Quebec’s frightening COVID-19 toll exposes neglect of our most vulnerable

Nothing we say or do will salve the pain of the many families who lost loved ones because of COVID-19, including those living with pre-existing conditions.

More people have died of the virus in Montreal than in any province or territory, and it has raged in well over 100 long-term care centres and senior residences on the island.

With our much-vaunted healthcare, how could this have happened? What is to be done to better protect our cherished seniors in long-term care who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic?

Too late, too little

Certainly, and tragically, our institutions were ill prepared. Yes, our March break came earlier than in other provinces, but at late as March 15 snowbirds and other travellers returning from New York City, Florida, the Caribbean, France, and Spain were not screened or questioned at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport about symptoms or told to self-isolate. The federal government shares responsibility for this slow response. Mayor Valérie Plante stepped into the void March 16 when she announced that all travellers would be met and told to self-quarantine at home for 14 days — even if they have no symptoms. By then, it is most probable the damage – the introduction and propagation of the virus – had begun.

Biggest mistake was banning private caregivers

Overworked and underpaid personal care providers in long-term care residences began to get sick, and some fearing infection, stayed home. As of early May, some 11,000 healthcare workers were absent from their jobs. The situation was exacerbated by Quebec’s big blunder – the banning of personal support workers hired by families to bolster care for their loved ones and family members themselves. While stringent measures were necessary to prevent infected people from entering these homes, including those who were asymptomatic, it was an inhumane move. These people should have been tested so they could provide the ever more necessary basic care that depleted staff could not. Quebec relaxed this rigid ruling on April 14 when a single pre-existing primary caregiver was supposed to be allowed to visit and care for a CHSLD resident. Trouble is, the word never reached CHSLD St. Henri where neonatologist Dr. Therese Perreault, who took a leave of absence to care for her Alzheimer’s mother, was not permitted to visit her. How many other caregivers were similarly denied access?

Weak plan to replace workers with specialists

There was no plan, no strategy for creating hot and cold zones for those who were infected, to limit the spread of the virus. Quebec’s ordering highly-trained medical specialists to work in these facilities, rather than nursing and other health-care threatened their health and ability to provide urgent surgeries. And there is simply not enough staff for residents’ daily care.

Shameful lack of testing

As late as the end of April, there was not enough testing equipment. Even Georges Laracque, the former Montreal Canadiens hockey player, had to plead to get tested at Longueuil’s Charles-Le-Moyne Hospital when he had clear symptoms and was delivering food as a volunteer to housebound seniors. In his case, the so-called “important person’s act” did not apply. He tested positive, had to be hospitalized, and publicized his situation in the media. How many more tireless and dedicated volunteers, who were not as well known, were denied testing?

We’ll never know.

Misplaced political decisions

Premier Legault squandered the initial energy of his mandate by focusing on banning some civil servants and all teachers from wearing religious symbols, cutting much needed immigration levels, thereby reducing a source of health-care workers, and scrapping school boards. It is a bit late for him to say, as he did last month, that he might accelerate the building of his so-called Maison des ainés. It took more than a year since the CAQ won a majority Oct. 1, 2018 for it to announce in November details of its plan to build new senior and alternative residences with only 12 units, a total of 2,600 beds to be open by 2022. However, there was no specific plan to hire and train staff at a time when there is a severe shortage in existing long-term care facilities. It also plans to renovate or rebuild CHSLD with a total of 2,600 beds, but there is no timeline here. Total estimated cost: $2.6 billion.

The crisis in long-term care facilities surely demands a rethink of this plan. It might be better to focus on renovating and restructuring existing larger facilities, where managers can take advantage of economies of scale and be in a better position to confront the next pandemic.

Re-opening too soon?

The province-wide lockdown that began at midnight March 24 was necessary and welcome. It’s a question of priorities, and if any good emerges from this pandemic, it will be to jolt our society into realizing that providing proper basic care for our most vulnerable is a test of our values. It’s high time to readjust our priorities.

But many are wondering about Legault’s gamble in moving faster than other provinces in planning to reopen business and schools gradually just as the curve of the number of deaths linked to the virus appeared to be flattening, with almost 90 percent of the 2,280 Quebec deaths in early May attributable to the virus in the Montreal region. Still, the number of people admitted to hospital was growing, with 1,773 in these facilities, mostly in the Montreal region. The pressure on hospitals is the main reason given for delaying the reopening of some businesses on the island, at least until May 18. But once life begins to return to its pre-pandemic pace, is when all of us, especially seniors, have to continue following basic rules of vigorous hand washing and social-distancing. And our government has to develop effective and workable systems to better protect vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities and seniors’ homes.

Strong advice for our readers

Once businesses open and social distancing is relaxed, at least outdoors, stay inside or in your yard, or take walks in your own neighbourhood. Avoid busy commercial streets. Wear a mask at all times when outside your home or yard. Avoid restaurants and cafés. Avoid retail shopping. Eating out is just not worth the risk. In other words, take no chances. If your have to buy something such as an air conditioner, buy it online.

Re-opening the economy and sending kids back to school must not have the side effect of endangering seniors! Above all, take care of yourselves: Stay connected safely — by phone or online. And be prepared for the long haul. We know it’s tough but it’s essential if we are to keep ourselves safe.

 

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