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Families struggle as deadly COVID-19 outbreak overruns long-term care home in Scarborough


Families struggle as deadly COVID-19 outbreak overruns long-term care home in Scarborough

When Jessica Wong learned her grandmother had tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday morning she was devastated. But she nearly fell off her seat when she learned that her relative was still living in a room with someone whose most recent test came back negative.

“I was shocked,” Wong said. “I asked the nurse ‘do you feel the right thing to do is separate them?’ ”

Wong said the nurse told her that it wasn’t her decision to separate the patients; it was up to management.

Wong, 32, whose grandmother has been living at Tendercare Living Centre, just off Victoria Park Ave., in Scarborough, since the summer, has been scared and feeling helpless over the last few days, after discovering that an outbreak at the nursing home has been spreading out of control.

In the past 10 days, 33 residents have died of COVID-19 and infections among residents have swelled from just a handful less than two weeks ago to 164 infected out of 188 residents, while 56 staff have also been infected.

On Thursday alone, 20 more residents became infected with the virus. More than 90 per cent of residents in Tendercare now have COVID-19.

Wong said Tendercare never called to tell her and her parents about the outbreak. She learned about it through the family member of another Tendercare resident who reached out to her, out of the blue, on Facebook messenger. After her phone calls to the facility earlier this week were unanswered, she went down to the home on Saturday and found chaos. No one seemed to have any information or know what was going on. After demanding to know about the health of her grandmother, a receptionist told her that her grandmother had tested negative. And she couldn’t go see her.

“I could see that they were desperate for more staff and help,” Wong said. “I’m upset. I feel like they don’t have things under control.”

Wong’s experience is echoed by many families who are worried about loved ones living in the home through the outbreak. They have formed a group over What’s App to exchange information.

On Thursday, a team including doctors, nurses and infection control specialists were dispatched to the nursing home as part of an agreement with North York General Hospital.

On the same day, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care released the results of a Dec. 16 inspection of the home saying that Extendicare “failed” to ensure its staff implemented an infection-control program. The report listed numerous violations, saying inspectors saw personal support workers flouting the prevention rules, entering patients’ rooms without proper gowns or gloves and found that the home didn’t have enough PPE caddies for staff to use. On one occasion, the report said, an inspector found a resident’s spent drinking cup lying on some fresh PPE. “As a result,” the report said. “The disease spread rapidly throughout the home and there were a number of resident deaths and also a number of residents who have tested positive for the outbreak resulting in actual risk to the residents.”

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A Tendercare spokesperson wrote to the Star saying the home is working with partners to identify areas to “provide further assistance, … including additional staff as we have over previous weeks.” In a letter emailed to residents Thursday Tendercare said it been maintaining “baseline staffing levels throughout the outbreak,” in part, because staff have been working extra shifts.

“Our responsibility to our residents and the people who love them is paramount,” the spokesperson wrote. “We will continue to explore and access every possible resource to move our home to stable position …. Our hearts are with the families of these residents during such a difficult time.”

Calvin Tang’s eyes almost popped out of his head on Dec. 21, when he read an email update from Tendercare and realized the home was in the throes of an outbreak. He tried several times to call the home, but staff didn’t answer, so he went over to the facility in person and asked for an update.

Finally, after 20 minutes or so, he said, someone came out and told him his mother had tested negative. But, he said, he’s not sure if he can believe them, especially because he knows they aren’t necessarily separating patients who have tested positive from those who are still negative. And, he said, the majority of people in the home are frail.

“Its so frustrating,” Tang wrote to the Star in an email. “It shouldn’t be this way. Tendercare and its owner Extendicare Corp. had lots of time to prepare and prevent this type of situation from happening and yet it is happening.”

Clorie Ng is also up in arms about the lack of information, transparency and above all the lack of care that her mother, who has dementia, is likely receiving. She first called the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care’s Action Line on Dec. 15, complaining about the staff shortage at Tendercare, saying no doctor was working there and she was worried. She called again on Sunday because she found out staff were putting residents who tested positive in the same room as those who tested negative.

Ng then called the home and left messages and someone finally called her back earlier this week, saying her mother was negative, but she hasn’t gotten in touch with staff in the last couple of days. There are just 16 residents left who have not tested positive, Ng said, and that is concerning. “I am really seriously thnking about checking my mom out,” she said. “It’s almost a full house of seniors all infected. We need to move those 16 out of the building as soon as possible. The clock is ticking …. It’s a matter of Russian roulette.”

That’s exactly how Wong felt earlier this week when she fought with Tendercare about removing her grandmother from the home temporarily amid the outbreak. After finding out on Tuesday that her grandmother had tested negative for COVID-19 that morning, she asked executives if her family could discharge her until the outbreak was over, noting that it would take some pressure off staff at the home who were scrambling to cope with the onslaught.

But the home refused, telling her that if she did take her grandmother out, she wouldn’t be able to get in again anytime soon. And she’d have to go back on the years’-long wait list. Luckily, Wong found a link online showing that the home was not permitted to penalize her for taking out her grandmother on a short leave, and, she spoke to someone in government who confirmed that.

Wong made plans to take her grandmother out, even rearranging the rooms in her parents’ home to accommodate her grandmother in a close to a bathroom. But, just as she was getting ready to go out and pick up the last few medical supplies, Tendercare called with the bad news of her most recent COVID-19 test.

“I was heartbroken,” Wong said.

Michele Henry is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star, writing health and education stories. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry

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