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Ontario launches commission to investigate long-term care COVID-19 deaths

Thursday, July 30, 2020 @ 1:38 PM | By John Schofield

Last Updated: Friday, July 31, 2020 @ 11:22 AM

The Ontario government is launching a three-person commission to investigate the hundreds of COVID-19 deaths in the province’s long-term care homes, but critics say the move falls far short of a full public inquiry.

The commission will be chaired by Frank Marrocco, an Ontario Superior Court associate chief justice who served as lead counsel for the government of former premier Mike Harris during the 2002 Walkerton tainted water inquiry. It will also include Angela Coke, a former senior executive in the Ontario public service, and Dr. Jack Kitts, former president and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, according to a government news release

COVID-19 has so far claimed the lives of 1,844 residents of Ontario long-term care homes and eight staff, according to news reports.

The commission will have the power to compel individuals to give evidence and to hold public meetings, according to the news release. It will investigate how COVID-19 spread within long-term care homes, how residents, staff and families were impacted, and the adequacy of measures taken by the province and other parties to prevent, isolate and contain the virus, the release added. The commission will also provide the government with guidance on how to better protect long-term care home residents and staff from any future outbreaks. It is expected to deliver its final report by April 2021.

“The people of Ontario deserve a timely, transparent and non-partisan investigation,” Minister of Long Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said in the release. “That is why our government is launching this independent commission to help us identify ways to prevent the future spread of disease in Ontario's long-term care homes.”

Opposition politicians and some stakeholder groups expressed doubt about how effective the commission will be in protecting long-term care residents from future health threats.

Both the NDP Official Opposition and Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the commission’s terms of reference are not broad enough.

Schreiner said in a written statement that he is disappointed that the commission has not been tasked with comparing the conditions between non-profit and for-profit long-term care homes.

“We need a full and evidence-based examination of how elders are cared for,” he said in the statement. “We need to know whether for-profit homes can guarantee minimum standards of care.”

A recent report from McMaster University found that nearly a quarter of residents in for-profit homes where COVID-19 outbreaks occurred became infected, compared with 17 per cent in non-profit homes and seven per cent in municipally owned facilities. The study determined that the difference stemmed primarily from the design of the buildings, and that more for-profit homes use an older design standard that permits up to four residents per room.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) welcomed the launch of the commission, but urged the government to act now to address long-standing problems like understaffing in long-term care homes.

“We are disheartened that possible recommendations the commission makes will be non-binding, and that it will not be able to establish civil or criminal liability,” ONA president Vicki McKenna said in a news release. “However, ONA will step up and we expect to be allowed to share our experience and knowledge nonetheless.”

The Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System, headed by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Eileen Gillese and prompted by the murders of long-term care residents committed by former registered nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer, delivered its report last year. In announcing the new commission, the government said it will continue to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.

The government released its Report Back on the Gillese Inquiry July 30, updating its progress in four areas recommended by Justice Gillese: increasing awareness, prevention, deterrence and detection of intentional harm in long-term care homes. To date, 80 per cent of the recommendations are complete or underway, according to a separate news release.

As part of its effort to fulfill the recommendations in the Gillese report, the government said it has entered into a three-year, $1.8 million partnership with the Institute for Safe Medication Practices Canada to help long-term care homes strengthen medication safety practices. The province also plans to launch a Medication Safety Technology program next spring to help homes adopt new technologies to strengthen medication dispensing safety and consistency.

The government also released on July 30 its Long-Term Care Staffing Study Report as part of an effort to develop a comprehensive staffing strategy, to be released later this year. The study was informed by an external Long-Term Care Staffing Study Advisory Group made up of family advocates, operators, academics and other industry thought leaders. This group provided the government with advice on staffing in the long-term care sector in response to a key recommendation in the Gillese report.

The government said it is creating a $10-million annual training fund to help frontline staff at long-term care homes acquire new skills.

The government has also said it will invest $1.75 billion to create new long-term care beds and redevelop existing ones. In addition, it is updating design standards for new and renovated homes to include air conditioning.

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