Ontario’s Patient Ombudsman says complaints about long-term care homes shot up by over 370 per cent from March 1 to June 30 — and is now issuing recommendations to help the sector manage rising case counts of COVID-19.
In a new report released Thursday morning, the ombudsman’s office says it has received a number of complaints from whistleblowers about the safety of residents and staff, pointing to a crisis in the province’s long-term care homes during the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, the province was reporting 1,952 resident deaths in long-term care, representing just over 65 per cent of the province’s overall COVID-19 death rate.
“Based on what the Patient Ombudsman heard, in the rush to shield our health-care system from COVID-19, patients and their families were in many instances set adrift, left to navigate shifting policies and public health responses alone without the knowledge, expertise or support to do so successfully,” Ombudsman Cathy Fooks wrote in the report.
“Health-care providers were also left to develop their own approaches in line with public health directives and guidance, leading to a great deal of inconsistency and uncertainty in any particular situation.”
The report says the ombudsman heard about several issues most commonly, including issues around visitation, infection prevention and control, quality of care and staffing.
“What is clear is that we must prevent what happened from happening again,” Fooks wrote.
The ombudsman is now making four recommendations to the provincial government:
- Backstops and contingency plans for all health-care providers. This includes every long-term care home having a partner organization to provide support for management, infection prevention and control, and staffing to prevent and respond to any COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Visitation changes. The ombudsman is recommending the province not entirely restrict visitors, but permit a limited number of essential caregivers to visit with infection control measures.
- Dedicated communication resources. The report states that communication between patients, residents and families is essential, and so the province needs to ensure adequate resources for communication are possible.
- Enhanced whistleblower protections. The ombudsman is recommending that the government legislate whistleblower protections for health-care workers who bring forward concerns.
The report outlines several anonymous whistleblower complaints. One describes a situation in a long-term care facility where COVID-19-positive staffers were forced to come to work and were working with, and taking swabs from, residents.
Residents who had tested positive were able to mix with other residents who had not. Staff working in areas with COVID-19-positive residents were also working in areas of the home that was previously unaffected by the novel coronavirus, according to the report.
According to a news release, the ombudsman, who investigates complaints about care in long-term care homes, public hospitals and community care, is now conducting a broader systemic investigation into long-term care outbreaks.
Findings from that investigation are expected to be public in 2021.