Ontario’s long-term care minister says government couldn't keep up with COVID-19 in homes

Ontario Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton suggested the slow pace of government bureaucracy largely explained the litany of failures described in Ontario COVID-19 Long Term Care Commission report released last week, taking few questions and declining to apologize when reporters asked.

The commission found her ministry had “no plan” to protect residents from the coronavirus pandemic that eventually killed nearly 4,000 people in its care.

The Long-Term Care Commission’s 322-page report released Friday night found thatthe sector was insufficiently prepared for a pandemic, and it was made worse by the province's slow and reactive response when the virus arrived.

It cited shortage of personal protective equipment, lack of adequate testing, improper cohorting of infected and non-infected residents as well as a general failure to recognize the risks posed by COVID-19 identified by other jurisdictions in the months before the pandemic arrived in Ontario.

Fullerton said they did all they could as fast as they could, but it was not enough.

“You know, I think the government measures and processes, we were trying to move fast for government. And COVID-19 was moving faster,” she said.

More than 3,900 residents of long-term care homes with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 died between March 2020 and this month, along with at least 11 staff members.

The report found full inspections were sparsely conducted in person in the months leading up to the onset of the pandemic, and residents frequently had to receive COVID-19 test results in the mail days after outbreaks in the early months of the first wave, rendering them practically useless.

The deaths only abated in late February after the province was able to offer vaccination to all staff and residents.

As minister responsible for the sector, Fullerton did not apologize for the numerous painful lapses that led to thousands of deaths in the province’s 626 long-term care homes between March 2020 and February 2021.

“You know, I think collectively as a society we need to do some soul searching and understand why, you know, it took a pandemic to address the capacity issues in long-term care the staffing issues in long-term care,” she said when asked if she would apologize.

She said her ministry has doubled the number of personal support workers that will graduate this year, from 8,000 to 16,000, and reiterated past promises to increase the standard of care in all homes and improve infection prevention practices and inspections.

“I absolutely take responsibility for the wellbeing of residents in long term care, and staff. And along with all the other entities that have been working around the clock to address, you know this once in 100 year pandemic against an unknown virus.”

She then walked out of the room after taking three questions and three follow up questions, even as reporters in the room asked her to stay as there were many more journalists who wanted to question her.

In Question Period later on Monday morning, NDP leader Andrea Horwath told Fullerton that staffing levels in most long-term care homes at lower rates than they were at the onset of the first wave of the pandemic, and criticized the government for pledging to increase the standard of care in homes to four hours per day, only by 2025.

“Nobody believes this minister will make those changes, that she will bring those changes to Ontario, will she resign now?”

Fullerton replied by calling Horwath’s remarks “stunningly ignorant,” a remark she then had to withdraw.

“If you want to have adequate staffing in long-term care, if you want to have the necessary support for residents, you need to actually train the staff, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Fullerton said. “To get to four hours of care you need people who want to work in long-term care, who are trained to work in long-term care.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said Monday that the report highlighted the need for an immediate increase in paid hours for personal support workers and other staff in the sector, as well as “a move that would acknowledge the growing evidence of aerosol transmission of COVID-19,” something the Ontario government has been slow to accept.