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We Need More Caring Hands to Protect Residents

April 30, 2020

We can and must do more to protect Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens from this pandemic.

When Ontario’s health officials shared their updated COVID-19 projections earlier this week, the province breathed a collective sigh of relief. Best case scenarios – thanks to a Premier who is making good decisions and communities that are, on the whole, heeding the government’s good advice.

But the reality is there are now two pandemics occurring simultaneously. One in the broader community, which is gradually easing up. The other in long-term care homes, which urgently need the health system’s collective efforts to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.

While a lot of scrutiny has been aimed at congregate care settings experiencing outbreaks, one thing is apparent: no matter how proactive and prepared, once COVID gets a toehold in the door of a long-term care home, it takes every ounce of time, energy and resources to keep it under control.

In long-term care, it’s easy to see why: more than half our residents are over age 85, with heavy clinical care needs and extreme frailty. Most are highly sensitive to changes in routine or staffing and susceptible to rapid deconditioning. These individuals live in our Homes because their families have exhausted all efforts to care for them in other settings.

The government’s revised modelling has shown that we have a rapidly closing window in which to save more lives by getting a handle on the dire situation occurring in many long-term care homes. We must do whatever it takes to shore up supports for our dedicated care teams, immediately and for the foreseeable future.

In short, we need more caring hands in our homes in the coming weeks and months.

With some of our staff unavailable due to self-isolation or illness, our teams continue to work tirelessly to keep our residents safe, and to exhaust all options to keep care as our uninterrupted focus. This includes hiring agency staff and outsourcing laundry, meal prep or cleaning.

In Quebec, where some of the worst outbreaks have occurred, officials are taking decisive action to stabilize long-term care homes in the next two weeks. Here in Ontario, we have the capacity to do the same thanks to the work our hospitals did at the very beginning of the crisis.

Weeks ago, they pivoted their operating model, curbed elective surgeries and decanted patients in preparation for a surge that, instead, banged on long-term care’s door. Many are now voluntarily lending their clinicians to our hardest-hit homes. Getting these boots on the ground is a positive step forward, but lives are still in the balance and more must be done.

Now is the time to take a hard look at all untapped capacity in the system.

In home care, thousands of nurses are directly employed by the LHINs under Ontario Health. In a normal world, LHINs manage intake and referral to home and community care programs and services, placement into long-term care homes and more.

Right now, hospital referrals are drastically reduced, long-term care admissions are on hold, and thousands of home care patients are voluntarily suspending services because they worry the healthcare worker will unintentionally bring COVID into their home. We cannot waste the opportunity to use this excess capacity to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens.

Long-term care homes have the training, the personal protective equipment and experience at the bedside caring for our seniors to welcome these LHIN healthcare workers as extra sets of caring hands on our frontline. Deploying them in this way will undoubtedly save lives.

Around Ontario we are seeing pockets of excellence, with upfront planning, system-level thinking and cross-sector care delivery models launched on a dime.  Some regions have freed up thousands of hours and reallocated home care personal support workers and nurses to the frontline of long-term care homes in outbreak. We need more of this kind of leadership – an all-hands-on-deck attitude – around the province. Every day we wait costs lives.

When the pandemic is over, we all need to be able to look our aging parents or grandparents in the eye and say, “we did everything in our power to protect you.”

Until an effective COVID vaccine is developed, no one will be completely safe, and long-term care homes and other congregate settings remain at great risk of new outbreaks. First wave, second wave, tenth wave – we will keep fighting for our residents and calling on our health system partners to fight with us. Our cherished seniors deserve nothing less.

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