Without immediate action and extra interventions to protect residents of Ontario’s long-term-care homes, the next few weeks could mean disaster, experts warn.
An analysis by the Star of the number of deaths in Ontario’s long-term-care homes is already showing a worrying trend.
The data is the latest to pull back the curtain on the mounting toll COVID-19 has taken on care homes, which have been ravaged by the pandemic, exposing systemic and long-standing issues to deadly effect.
To date, 2,749 residents of the province’s long-term-care homes have died.
In the past week, the seven-day average of deaths has doubled, new numbers show.The average has tripled since the beginning of December.
“It’s not that we don’t know what needs to be done. And it’s not that we didn’t learn more about what works (and) what doesn’t work,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of seniors’ advocacy group CanAge. “The challenge has been the lag time in implementing those needed changes in Ontario — that has been fundamentally the problem.”
There were 194 long-term-care homes reporting active outbreaks on Dec. 28, more than at any point during the pandemic’s first wave. Outbreaks decreased over the next several days but were still hovering at 187 with the province’s last update on Dec. 30.
So far, the pandemic’s early onslaught has still proven most deadly. Of all deaths, nearly 70 per cent came during the first wave between March and Aug. 31, according to a Star analysis.
It’s possible that there have been fewer deaths since then because those with stronger immune systems who weathered the first wave are likely to also survive the second, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
It’s also hard to compare the waves, he said, because “so much is different,” including what we’ve learned about the virus and how to treat it.
But, he noted, there’s still a chance the second wave will prove just as deadly.
“Either a long-term-care home is somehow able to keep COVID out, or it gets in — and then it wreaks havoc,” Furness said. “If more long-term-care homes end up getting outbreaks, then we’re going to see those numbers pop right back up.”
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Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed.
“I think over the coming weeks, we should expect more deaths, given how many cases are occurring right now, in long-term-care homes,” she said.
In it’s Dec. 31 data update, the government reported 1,186 active cases among residents and an additional 1,050 in long-term-care workers. The cumulative number of cases in long-term care breaks down fairly equally between the first and second waves.
Vaccinations could help mitigate the situation before it becomes too dire, all three experts said, noting that the province needs to move much faster to immunize patients as well as health-care workers.
“It would take time for vaccines to provide protection amongst people who have been vaccinated, but it’s a tool we have now that we didn’t have in the first wave,” Tuite said.
This past week, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition called for the military to once again be sent into this province’s long-term-care homes.
A testing backlog and poor enforcement have contributed to an increase of infections and deaths in long-term-care homes, said Natalie Mehra.
The province has to date insisted it is doing all it can to fight back COVID-19’s second wave.
In November, the government promised to establish a new “gold” standard for care homes in the province by 2024, ensuring residents four hours of care per day. Weeks later it issued a directive stipulating those working or volunteering in care homes must take regular COVID tests.
Critics say these measures don’t go far enough, calling current staffing levels a crisis. Earlier in December, the coalition released a survey of 88 staff in dozens of long-term-care homes experiencing outbreaks. Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said they did not have adequate staffing.
Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon
Andrew Bailey is a freelance data analyst for the Star
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