Coroner in Herron care home inquiry to review surveillance footage of staff behaviour

Coroner Gehane Kamel has had a change of heart: she will finally view the footage captured by cameras at the Herron long-term care home to see if any employees left their posts leaving residents to their own devices on March 27, 28 and 29, 2020.

The coroner, who is presiding over an inquest into the fate of vulnerable seniors during the first wave of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, made the announcement Thursday.

She said she had "slept very badly" as she thought about the questions still lingering in her mind, as her hearings dealing specifically on Residence Herron. 

"I felt like I was leaving with a lot of questions and half-answers -- answers that didn't satisfy me," the coroner said.

She explained that she had initially refused to view the surveillance camera footage, seeing no relevance to her investigation. But it is by thinking again of the families that she changed her mind, she says, in order to "elucidate a minimum for them (them)."

She said she wanted to find out if any of the staff at the Herron care home decided to leave their posts on March 27, 28 and 29 without ensuring that they would be replaced, leaving vulnerable seniors to fend for themselves. She will then see if this is relevant to her investigation, she said.

She also announced that she was adding three days to her hearings, on Oct. 25, 26 and 27, to hear from at least four witnesses "whom I want to challenge on the information we have received."

Later, she sought to reassure the prosecutors representing the parties that this was not intended to "catch people in the act."

"Then, I'll feel like I'm coming full circle in Herron. Maybe I won't have all my answers, but at least I'll be able to sleep soundly," she said.

The coroner reiterated that her inquest was not about finding a culprit or culprits, but about getting to the truth to better understand what happened.

A national component to her hearings is planned next. She still hopes to have her inquest completed by early December.

On Thursday, Herron's owner, Samantha Chowieri, continued her testimony. She claimed that her private CHSLD had asked for help from CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'île-de-Montréal because it could not recruit enough staff, but instead ended up with a trusteeship and blame for its management and care of residents.

She also blamed Info-Santé for, she said, advising its employees who called 8-1-1 to go into isolation for 14 days if they were exposed to a case of COVID-19. The advice, she said, was a major factor in losing her regular employees, as well as their fear of a then-unknown virus.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 23, 2021.