From home, Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel exposes pandemic realities

When Aaron Derfel began covering health issues for The Montreal Gazette 21 years ago, he never expected to be singled out for criticism by a Quebec premier for allegedly contributing to anglo angst.

Since starting his career in journalism in 1989, Derfel, 53, has carved out a reputation among his peers as a relentless digger who will not parrot the official line or take “no comment” for an answer. Those who worked beside him, including me, remember well his insistent phone conversations and his perseverance in seeking responses.

Through the pandemic, Derfel has become essential reading with his analysis pieces, combining news from the frontlines, opinion from experts, and his own take on the situation. Among recent questions he’s asked is why we are not following Alberta’s lead in testing and whether the recent reopening of businesses will accelerate a second wave.

Derfel has developed a network of trusted sources in healthcare whose tips have enabled him to break and expand important stories.

In early June he reported that delays in diagnosing and treating malignancies as a result of the focus on the pandemic has frightened cancer specialists. Much to Derfel’s surprise, Premier François Legault, when asked at his daily press briefing May 13 why an opinion survey indicated that Quebec anglophones are more fearful of COVID-19 than francophones, chose to shoot the messenger by blaming The Gazette and Derfel.

In particular Legault cited Derfel’s frequent critical reporting on Twitter. According to Le Devoir editorial writer Robert Dutrisac, who blasted Legault for focusing on the wrong target, Derfel’s work is “rigourous and respected.” Clearly, Legault was not happy to have been contradicted by Derfel’s reporting, Dutrisac noted: Legault had boasted that healthcare officials had carried out 10,000 COVID-19 tests; Derfel did some checking and reported the actual number was 6,000.

Just another day’s work

This major discrepancy did not bolster Legault’s credibility, but it was just another day’s work for Derfel, who is working from home in NDG and says he spends long days of fielding messages, calling sources, and reading reports, sometimes until the early morning.

The government’s positive image in handling the pandemic was shattered two days earlier when Derfel broke what may have been the biggest story of his career – revealing that 31 residents of the Herron long-term car home in Dorval had died during the crisis, left in their beds, dehydrated, underfed and in soiled diapers: It was the first “horror story” of the crisis in Quebec. Responses to Legault’s remarks were swift.

In La Presse, columnist Rima Elkouri wrote that Derfel’s scoop on the Herron disaster poked holes in the image that Legault and Health Minister Danielle McCann had been cultivating, that Quebec was ahead of the pack in managing the COVID-19 crisis.

Blaming Derfel and his paper for high levels of concern among non-francophones was “a cheap shot” that does not clarify the issues, she wrote.

“I didn’t like the idea that I was becoming part of the story,” Derfel said. “I like to report the story, not become the story. “This pandemic is killing anglophones and francophones. It’s a public health issue not a language issue. Initially the pandemic hit the West End first, where there are a lot of anglophones, and polls show that more anglo Montrealers know or knew somebody who had COVID-19 or died of it.”

So much to learn in health beat

Derfel remembers that while covering city hall for the paper his father had become sick with cancer. That experience fed his eagerness to get beyond the political rhetoric he was hearing to follow the health beat that was so fundamental to so many readers.

“There was so much to learn, new medical advances, and the health care system at the time was beginning to unravel,” he recalled.

A promising graduate of Concordia’s journalism program and a hard-working reporter, Derfel’s timing was impeccable as a slew of health stories began to unfold. He broke stories on the C. Difficile “superbug” outbreak in several hospitals, the building of the city’s two super-hospitals and the rampant corruption in the planning and building of the MUHC, uncertainty over whether the Shriner’s Hospital was to be part of the Glen site, and the massive budget cuts and administrative consolidation under former Liberal health minister Gaétan Barrette.

It’s tough working from home

Working on the COVID-19 stories with Daniel, 13, and Sarah, 10, home from school has been “tricky at times,” Derfel noted. “I was on an interview and could hear upstairs that the kids are screaming at each other, and it was hard to concentrate. Still, we are a closely-knit family, we love each other, we’re grounded, so that helps. But … it’s been tough.”

He credits wife Anita Wolkoff for “keeping the family together so I can focus on the reporting. Sometimes I go to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, I wake up at 7 because I am reading all the stories, the latest studies, and speaking to my sources – I couldn’t do it without Anita.”

Quebec’s tough time handling the virus crisis and Montreal becoming a Canadian epicentre cannot be blamed solely on the current government, he noted.

“The years of austerity and the cuts weakened the healthcare system and made it more vulnerable, so when the pandemic hit, it could not have happened at a worse time.”

He praises the CAQ government for reinvesting considerably in the healthcare system, to partially compensate for severe cuts under the Liberals that caused personnel shortages in hospitals and nursing homes.

“We could have handled the pandemic better if we had not gone through these reforms and the years of cutbacks. There would still have been multiple outbreaks in nursing homes and people would have died, but there might well have been fewer outbreaks, and they might have been less severe.”

The administrative setup for managing healthcare on the island of Montreal resembles “a bureaucratic jigsaw puzzle,” with five CIUSSS (Centre integré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux) but the two super hospitals are not part of these administrative structures and the CHSLDs (long-term care facilities) are not under CIUSSS control.

Legault has noted that this is problematic.

The West Island CIUSSS also is in charge of the Grace Dart Extended Care Centre on Ste. Catherine St. E., which is in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. This is where the first health care worker, Victoria Salvan, died at home of causes related to COVID-19. The Filipino native was a 25-year veteran.

Multiple bureaucracies confusing

“We have these five systems and one doesn’t know what the other is doing, there is a lack of coordination,” Derfel said.

Legault and his team appeared to be managing the pandemic well until Derfel broke the story about the Herron. The initial information on the crisis at the Herron residence came from “a very, very reliable source,” who described the scene at the privately-run Dorval facility when replacement workers showed up after it was placed under government trusteeship.

“They saw some residents dead, still in their beds, and a horrific scene of malnourished people – their mouths were so dry they couldn’t even speak. Some hadn’t been changed or bathed. Some were on the floor. The image of a concentration camp came to mind!”

That night, Derfel, though exhausted from gathering the initial information, could not sleep, worrying about how he would develop the story after telling his editors about it.

“I started an early version and kind of buried the lede. I was focusing on the big picture on the West Island and one of my editors said, ‘This is like Dante’s Inferno!’”

Fleshing out the story, Derfel spoke to children of residents, including former Gazette copy editor Peter Wheeland, whose parents had been Herron residents, and realized that the death toll was bigger than the official number at the time, which was two.

Derfel uncovers Herron death toll

“They were telling me this and it made no sense. I spoke to six people whose parents had died, and then one of the workers told me the real number of deaths was 27.”

The West Island CIUSSS would not comment, and Derfel remembers going to bed “really nervous” that the government would challenge his figure the next day.

“The premier had the day off, but he showed up at the daily press briefing and revealed there had been 31 deaths at Herron.”

Derfel followed up with a more indepth story that challenged Legault’s narrative that officials had only discovered how bad the situation was belatedly, showing that most of the deaths had occurred after Herron had been placed under trusteeship.

While many of the residents had been infected prior to the trusteeship, Derfel demonstrated in his follow-up story that “there is a lot of blame to go around,” including mismanagement by the owners, a high staff turnover, and improper quarantine procedures, which allowed the outbreak to take hold.

Derfel made a search of every death record, and checked the death notices in the newspapers, incorporating these facts in his second story. Other journalists were doing a good job in reporting on the trusteeships, Derfel stresses, but not on the reasons why it was necessary.

When the owners started to respond, using a PR firm, Derfel says he was suspicious. They only spoke publicly after the Herron had been placed under trusteeship, and Quebec announced a criminal investigation, a Coroner’s Inquiry, a public health investigation, and appointment of a special inspector to review how the tragedy there was handled. The Coroner’s office is investigating a total of 51 deaths at the Herron because of allegations of negligence.

“I wanted to know what was happening before the trusteeship,” Derfel said of his persistent inquiries.

He recalled a lengthy interview with co-owner Katherine Chowieri where he learned of a feud between the owners and the West Island CIUSSS “and the residents ended up suffering.”

“I feel for workers who in the early days of the pandemic were not given personal protective equipment and were getting infected.” Derfel notes that B.C. was the first province to report an outbreak and the first death March 8, at the Lynn Valley Care Centre, but “the province managed to control its outbreak earlier than in Quebec.”

Legault’s major error

“The biggest mistake Legault made was to announce firm dates for schools and some businesses to reopen before at least two weeks of a reduction in cases and hospitalization. “The only justification he cited was that outside the CHSLDs there seemed to be a stabilization of deaths.

This was absurd: No jurisdiction in the world has cited that as a criterion to ease confinement measures.” Quebec’s spring break, residents returning from abroad, returning snowbirds, and wedding guests from New York spread the virus here, he noted.

As well, Quebec public health did not require people returning from abroad to self-isolate and get tested. These factors “created a perfect storm of horrible conditions that led to the Montreal area becoming the epicenter of the pandemic in Canada,” Derfel noted.

Future plans for long-term care

Legault has suggested he may accelerate plans to build a network of smaller-scale Maisons des aînés senior homes that offer more humane living conditions.

“The pandemic has shown that infection control and housekeeping have to be improved in CHSLDs,” Derfel said. “We have to invest more in care for the elderly but these investments will pay off in the long run.”

In the meantime, Legault’s plan to train and hire 10,000 new long-term care workers should improve care in these facilities.

“Let’s hope that the pandemic will lead to positive change,” Derfel said.

Twitter Kerfuffle

One thing that hasn’t changed is Legault’s obsession with Derfel. In the first weekend in June, the premier tweeted that he was blocking Derfel from his Twitter feed. In an effort to discredit the reporter and his work, Legault had put “journalist” in quotes and blamed Derfel for tagging him multiple times and accusing Legault of “lying,” without citing a single example.

The kerfuffle sparked media interviews in which Derfel cited more than a dozen tweets in which he had praised Legault.

Referring to his reporting on erroneous numbers of testing that Legault had cited, Derfel countered that he did not accuse the premier of lying: “The numbers speak for themselves, perhaps he was being misinformed.”

Derfel also pointed to an article he wrote in January praising Legault for saving the Montreal General while he was Parti Québécois health minister in 2003. He also praised Legault for saying he accepted full responsibility for how the pandemic was being managed — unlike Donald Trump.

“Yes, my tweets have been relentlessly critical, but I see it as an antidote to the gushing ‘ça va bien aller’ optimism that the premier espouses, especially during the peak when 400 people were dying in a day.

“My role is not to spin the numbers, it’s to look at things critically, to look at the context.”

In the end, Derfel was unblocked from the premier’s Twitter account, prompting Derfel to call it “a gracious move, which shows that he’s listening to the people and supporting freedom of the press.”

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