The families of residents at a Scarborough long-term care centre where a recent outbreak of COVID-19 has led to the death of at least 62 residents shared their stories about their ordeal at a town hall meeting on Sunday evening.

The ‘Save our Seniors’ town hall provided several families an opportunity to talk about their experiences and the challenges they faced as they scrambled to get information about their loved ones after an outbreak was declared at Tendercare Living Centre. It was hosted by Scarborough-Southwest NDP MPP Doly Begum and Vivian Stamatopoulos, a long-term care home advocate and social science professor at Ontario Tech University.

During the almost two-hour virtual meeting, many of them said the lack of communication and transparency from Extendicare, which operates the facility, caused great confusion during the early days of the outbreak.

Hours before the town hall, North York General Hospital, which recently took over the management of the long-term care home, reported two more residents have died from COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed virus-related deaths at Tendercare since the outbreak began on Dec. 9 to 62.

The hospital said 64 residents and 34 staff members remain infected with the novel coronavirus. For the fourth day in a row, there are no new cases among residents or staff at the facility.

Holding back tears, Reed Zhao shared that his 96-year-old grandmother passed away Sunday morning after her battle with COVID-19.

During his last phone call with her last week, she told Zhao that they were only giving her cold water, which she could not drink.

“She was crying on the phone. She said they didn’t give me water. I cannot take cold water. She kept saying that,” Zhao said.

According to him, everything changed after his grandmother was transferred from her room to the isolation area of the facility.

Before, Zhao could hear her loud and clear on the phone. She even exchanged jokes with him. However, after being moved to isolation, she became “weak” and “could barely speak.”

“I didn’t know what happened in that three days when she was transferred out of her room,” he said. A staff even told him that his grandmother was the most active member in the home before the pandemic hit.

Now, Zhao wants answers.

“I believe conditions are improving, but we deserve to know how they were treated in the week of Dec. 18 and the week after,” he said. “As a family, we deserve to know how they were treated.”

He believes the management did not do everything they can to take care of his grandmother.

“I don’t know how these people, the management of Extendicare, can sleep at night,” Zhao said.

“Somebody needs to take responsibility and accountability.”

Another family member talked about how it took six days before the management informed them that his mother had tested positive for COVID-19. It needed another family member to call the home before the test result was revealed.

The communication was ‘terrible’ in the early days of the outbreak, he shared.

While there have been gradual improvements since the hospital took over, he said there are still some families who have not been able to communicate with their loved ones.

The granddaughter of another resident had the same problem, saying that her family was not notified that her grandmother had COVID-19.

“We were told that we would be notified of swab results as soon as they got them. And with my grandma’s case, I called for updates. I didn’t receive any call about her being positive. I found out incidentally from the nurse that said, oh, your grandma’s positive,” she said.

The worst part, she said, was some of the staff did not even know that her grandmother had been diagnosed with the disease.

“I feel like the nurse and the staff there, they’re stretched so thin,” she said, adding that staff shortage led to incorrect medical updates about her grandmother’s condition.

Her grandmother died on Christmas morning. On that day, she said, “it was a very rushed call. You could tell that the nurse on the line needed to get back to the other residents that were still there on that floor and still fighting.”

Following her grandmother’s death, she said she had been taken off the home’s mailing list. She now fears what will happen at the home when the temporary management contract it has with the hospital ends in 90 days.

“This nightmare doesn’t end,” she said.

All the families expressed their frustrations with Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, the minister of Long-Term Care, who, in an interview with CP24, admitted that there had been communication failures at nursing homes. However, she defended the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Fullerton said staffing at Tendercare is now above levels seen during normal operations for personal support workers and registered staff.

"Infection Prevention and Control audits have shown significant improvement this week. There have been no additional positive residents for four days, and the hospital is working with the home to regularly update families on resident care," the statement read.

"We have confidence in the North York General Hospital to continue to manage and stabilize the home, and have it return to normal operations.”

When a family member was asked what he wants from Fullerton, he said the minister needs to come out and speak with families, calling the statements she had previously issued ‘nonsense.’

Stamatopoulos said COVID-19 did not cause the condition within these homes. Rather it put a spotlight on what has been happening at long-term care facilities for years.

“We need to hold this home accountable because these deaths should not have happened. And these families deserve a modicum of justice. And right now, they’re not even getting a basic appreciation of what they went through -- the pain,” Stamatopoulos said.

“The fact that families were losing their loved ones on Christmas and nothing, no public immediate press conference, no emergency press conference from our elected officials when we have a mass casualty event…is a big problem.”

Stamatopoulos said Ontario is at a pivotal time in the second wave, and the government needs to call on the military once again to assist long-term care homes dealing with outbreaks.

“I fear it’s just going to get worse unless we have some immediate and swift action by our government, particularly Minister Fullerton, our long-term care minister,” she said.

“We cannot keep relying on a reactionary response after the fact. We need to get into these homes at a critical time at the start of their outbreaks and help to prevent these mass casualty events because as it stands right now, they will continue, and they will get worse if we don’t do anything.”

Speaking to CP24 on Sunday morning, Begum urged Ontario’s Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton to take part in the town hall.

“We have heard from so many family members who are angry, they are frustrated, they are sad,” she said. “The bodies have piled up in these homes, and it is heartbreaking.”

She said experts have been calling for further measures to help stop the spread of the virus in long-term care, including hiring more staff, calling in the military and Red Cross, and performing unannounced inspections.

Fullerton did not attend Sunday’s virtual town hall.

After the virtual meeting, Begum and Stamatapoulos sent an open letter to Fullerton, sharing the stories the families shared and what they’ve learned. They also urged the minister to use $12 billion in unallocated funding to stabilize long-term care homes hard hit by the pandemic.

“If you still unable to fulfil your duty to take every necessary action to keep long-term care residents safe, then do the right thing and resign from this role. Long-term care residents and their staff deserve better,” the two wrote.

94 COVID-19 cases at Annex long-term care home

According to the province’s latest epidemiological summary, there are now 228 ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19 in Ontario long-term care homes.

Another 15 virus-related deaths among residents of those facilities were confirmed today and since the start of the pandemic, 2,829 residents of long-term care have died after becoming infected with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

At St. George Care Community, a long-term care facility in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, 150 residents and 78 staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

As of Sunday, there are 84 active cases among residents and 51 cases among staff, along with at least six deaths.

“With the expertise of UHN (University Health Network) and Public Health, we have implemented comprehensive infection prevention and control protocols and isolation precautions for our residents,” Sienna Living, which operates St. George, said in a statement.

The company said 12 residents will be moved temporarily to a specialized care centre that the province created to help long-term care centres that are facing a “challenging situation.”

Meanwhile, residents who tested negative, cleared, or asymptomatic have been vaccinated, Sienna Living said.

“Where is the iron ring? We have heard the premier time and time again, come in front of the cameras... We have yet to see the iron ring,” Begum said. “It is time for the minister to act.”