The last time Fred Cramer had any contact with his mother, it was via video call from her bed at Orchard Villa long-term-care home in Pickering. Nearing her 91st birthday, Ruth Cramer was in tears and couldn’t hear her son during the call.
It was April 16, 2020, and she had already been diagnosed with COVID-19. The next three days brought sleepless nights and dread, Cramer told the Star on Wednesday. He and his sisters were told they couldn’t try another video call because the home only had one iPad and demand was high.
Then, on April 19, the phone rang and Cramer was told his mother had died.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I thought she was OK.”
Ruth Cramer was one of more than 1,800 seniors who lost their lives as the COVID-19 virus rampaged through Ontario long-term-care homes during the early stages of the pandemic. Conditions were so dire that the military was called in to help at five homes, including Orchard Villa, prompting a scathing report by a military commander about conditions inside the homes.
The death toll now stands at 3,919 residents. Seventy of those deaths occurred at Orchard Villa.
In the wake of the deaths, outrage churned throughout the province about the conditions in long-term-care homes and the sector’s failures in protecting residents from COVID-19. The public concern led to a report released Wednesday by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.
Lysyk’s report says both the industry and government were not equipped to respond to the crisis. Even today, though vaccines have made the homes much safer, residents are still at risk from future pandemics due to poor infection prevention, inadequate staffing and crowding, it said.
From his home in Whitby, Cramer said he hopes something positive comes out of today’s report but that he has doubts due to past inaction by the province. He said there were “no surprises in it,” particularly the admonishment of homes for not being prepared, pointing to the report’s mentioning of a lack of fines imposed on homes that broke regulations as the reason for his skepticism.
“They’re getting away with not looking after the people in the homes,” he said. “Why are they getting away with it?”
Further undermining Cramer’s faith was the province granting Orchard Villa permission to expand last year, despite it being specifically named in the Canadian military’s report.
Now, Cramer is part of a mass tort involving 25 families alleging gross negligence, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty against Orchard Villa. The families are represented by Toronto lawyer Melissa Miller, who also represents another 60 families against other care homes. Miller said the report offered vindication.
“This report corroborates what we all knew to be true and what we have all been hearing but it lays blames with the homes themselves and the government,” she said. “The homes for violating protocol and the government for not catching it.”
On Dec. 18, 2020, Reed Zhao got a call from Tendercare Living Centre, a long-term-care home in Scarborough, informing him that his grandmother, Ping Qiu, had tested positive for COVID-19.
It took nearly a week for Zhao and his family to reach his grandmother because the home moved her to a different room on the other side of the building and didn’t provide a new contact number, Zhao said.
Twelve days later, Qiu was admitted to hospital after the home told Zhao’s family she wasn’t eating or drinking. Zhao says the home wasn’t providing Qiu with warm water that she liked to drink. That’s because the Tendercare staff providing care to Qiu in her new room didn’t know her, he said.
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Lysyk’s report notes that as of Dec. 31, 2020, Tendercare had the sixth-highest number of deaths due to COVID-19 — 52 — of all Ontario long-term-care homes. Since then, 29 more residents have died, for a total of 81, the most COVID-19 deaths in a long-term-care home in the province. Qiu was one of them. She died in hospital on Jan. 3, 2021, at the age of 96.
Zhao says he is “deeply disturbed” by the Auditor General’s findings but “not surprised,” noting that he believes the province hasn’t adequately addressed the core problems with long-term care through proper inspections and enforcement. “We keep scratching the surface.”
Zhao says he believes change can come to the long-term-care system with collective action, but “with the status quo as is, I say we’re nowhere near it.”
June Morrison says she can barely fathom how, a year after COVID-19 tore through Ontario’s long-term-care homes, the government appears to have “done nothing” to avoid another catastrophe, referring to Lysyk’s finding that residents are still vulnerable to outbreaks and pandemics.
Her father, George Morrison, died on May 3, 2020, after being contracting COVID-19 at Orchard Villa. By the time her father was admitted to hospital on April 27 of that year, he was suffering from dehydration, a urinary tract infection and had lost a significant amount of weight, Morrison said. She believes there weren’t enough staff members in the home to care for her father properly.
Morrison says she is worried for those who still live at Orchard Villa and long-term-care homes in general, given the auditor general’s findings. She says she worries she won’t be able to visit friends she made at Orchard Villa when her father was a resident if we don’t act on lessons learned during the first wave of COVID-19.
“I don’t want to see the last of those connections to my father gone. I want to see them survive this, so that I can actually hug them once I’ve had my second vaccine, I can actually take them to the park again this year to do something or out for a Dairy Queen ice cream.”
For Cathy Parkes, any assurances from the provincial government that it committed to improving long-term care are empty.
She says that while Lysyk’s report highlighted many problems relatives of long-term-care residents were already aware of, “It’s tough to see it in black and white.”
She specifically referred to the fact the province discontinued comprehensive annual inspections in 2018 and that nursing homes had no relationships with hospitals or public health units at the beginning of the pandemic in order to benefit from their knowledge of how to handle infectious disease outbreaks.
Her father, Paul Parkes, died alone in his bed at Orchard Villa of COVID-19 on April 15, 2020. He was 86. Prior to his death, he wouldn’t eat or drink and was suffering from a fever.
Parkes said the province doesn’t seem motivated to make real change in the long-term-care sector.
“It’s frustrating and if I think too long about what happened to my dad and all of his friends at Orchard Villa, it’s really upsetting,” she said Wednesday. “I see comments from the minister of long-term care about how the government is fixing this. They’re not. They have no intention. It’s heartbreaking.”
With files from Rob Ferguson
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: [email protected]
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe