NSGEU report highlights problems at Northwood during COVID-19 outbreak

A major health-care union has released a report outlining its concerns around the outbreak of COVID-19 at Northwood, and renewed its call for a full public inquiry into the deaths of 53 people at the Halifax long-term care home.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) released a report Tuesday showing the union and the Nova Scotia Health Authority raised concerns about Northwood with the Department of Health and Wellness, but at the time both were unsatisfied with the response.

The NSGEU said it still has many questions about what happened.

“If we don’t move together through this, we won’t be able to prevent bad decisions in the future,” said president Jason MacLean. “We need to have reform within the long-term care system, and without a full and open public inquiry we won’t achieve that.”

On June 30, the province announced the creation of a two-person review committee into the COVID-19 outbreak at Northwood. At the same time, it announced a separate review of infection control procedures in the health system.

NSGEU president Jason MacLean says more than 60 of its members went to Northwood to work on pandemic relief teams. (CBC)

Between April and July at Northwood, there were 345 cases of the coronavirus, with 246 residents and 99 employees contracting it. Fifty-three of those residents died because of COVID-19.

More than 60 NSGEU members went to Northwood to work on pandemic relief teams. NSGEU employees do not normally work inside Northwood, where the majority of employees are represented by Unifor.

Last week, the NSGEU said it will not participate in the province’s review over concerns about transparency. Instead, it publicly released a report compiled using interviews with its members and emails obtained through access-to-information requests.

Union members reported problems

NSGEU members reported concerns to their union after their first shifts, which began on April 20.

Those included a lack of PPE and scrubs, no wristbands to identify which residents had COVID and which residents did not, residents moving freely about the facility while sharing space and bathrooms, and a lack of “clean” rooms where staff could safely change their PPE.

MacLean said he forwarded these concerns to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang as soon as he received them.

“I was a little frustrated that I didn’t get a response, but what I made of it was, I think we need to go public with it in order to get attention brought to it,” said MacLean.

“And that’s what happened, so I’m really glad that I brought it forward and brought it to the public, because it wasn’t being addressed at that time internally.”

CBC News contacted Northwood on Tuesday evening for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.

Nova Scotia Health Authority concerns

NSHA employees from the hospital system’s COVID unit were rushed to Northwood after the weekend of April 18-19.

On May 2, the health authority’s senior director of continuing care, Susan Stevens, wrote to NSHA employees Colin Stevenson, the vice-president of health services, quality and system performance, and Vickie Sullivan, the central zone operations executive director.

Stevens wrote that in homes with outbreaks, there needed to be a mechanism in place to monitor the care and safety of residents, as well as staff support and safety.

“I continue to raise this at various [Department of Health and Wellness] tables. We also sent this as a request to DHW through our [emergency operations centre] but their response did not address our request,” she wrote.

Between April and July at Northwood, there were 345 cases of the coronavirus, with 246 residents and 99 employees contracting it. Fifty-three of those residents died because of COVID-19. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

Stevens said an NSHA employee working in Northwood came to her with concerns.

“Many positive [residents] wandering about and sharing a room with residents who are [positive]. Some negative residents also wander about. Understandably, she worries about spread of the virus,” Stevens wrote. “[She is] reporting residents ‘likely haven’t had a bath in a week as their hair is all greasy.'”

“Most residents in bed and unable to help themselves. Also reports significant delays in pick-up of dirty laundry and emptying of garbage. Reportedly garbage cans are overflowing and at one point yesterday, there were no bed pans or fitted sheets available on the unit.”

Statement from province

The Department of Health and Wellness declined an interview request to speak with Health Minister Randy Delorey or Strang.

In a statement, spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said the health and safety of staff and residents is a top priority.

“Our goal with the review is to determine what happened at Northwood and address anything that will help avoid or contain future outbreaks of COVID-19. We expect that would be the NSGEU’s goal as well,” she wrote.

Fairbairn wrote the reviewers have begun their work and will present recommendations to the minister, families and the public at the end of the process.

Northwood CEO Janet Simm has repeatedly said she welcomes a public inquiry into the facility.

The two opposition parties have both called for a public inquiry to address systemic issues in long-term care highlighted by the outbreak at Northwood.

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