RNAO’s media conference to address the crisis in long-term care resonates widely

We were thrilled to host a media conference today Friday, alongside Sinai Health System geriatrician and powerful advocate Dr. Nathan Stall. This virtual event was crucial in our ongoing efforts to raise red flags and push for action that we hope will stop an evolving disaster in long-term care (LTC) homes similar to the one we saw during the first wave of COVID-19.

In no uncertain terms, we are calling on government to ACT NOW on four key asks:

  • a complete lock-down in red zones, except for essential service and schools, for 28 days,
  • immediate funding and directives to hire RNs, NPs, RPNs and PSWs in all nursing homes across the province,
  • a call to keep essential care partners in all LTC homes, and
  • the urgent need to de-crowd nursing homes with residents in multi-occupancy rooms (>2)

Dr. Stall stated today that he sees our current situation in LTC as “our provincial shame.” We at RNAO agree wholeheartedly. I, too, feel ashamed as a health professional, on behalf of all my nursing colleagues who have put their knowledge, hearts and souls into efforts to beat this terrible virus. We have not succeeded in moving the needle where it should be during this second wave, and those suffering the most are the vulnerable residents in LTC homes, their loved ones and staff.

We had 132 people joining our media conference today, including journalists from 15 media outlets, government officials, families of loved ones in nursing homes, frontline nurses and personal support workers, researchers and epidemiologists watching the trends and warning of what’s to come. Dr. Stall and his team are collecting statistics daily in an effort to keep the numbers under a microscope. His analysis shows that RNAO is correct in its repeated warnings that we are headed for disaster, if the government does not act immediately.

We saw the devastating impact of COVID-19 on LTC residents during the first wave. We watched the death curve go up between the end of March and May. And we are once again watching the curve trend upward. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 11 we have gone from zero deaths in LTC to more than 200 residents taken by the virus. Many of these could have been prevented with adequate staffing and de-crowding of nursing homes. There’s absolutely no excuse for this to happen.

As Dr. Stall so pertinently pointed out today, we can’t just focus on stats in the hospital sector to evaluate how we’re doing in our response to this second wave of COVID-19. We must talk about LTC. There are currently almost 700 active resident cases in LTC. 435 staff are currently infected.

Most concerning, since the second wave began this fall, 2,100 residents and 1,500 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Already in this second wave, 68% of COVID-related deaths are residents in nursing homes. Ninety-four nursing homes are in outbreak right now. Given the escalating numbers, we can expect a lot more tragedy and preventable loss of life in LTC, unless government takes immediate action. More must be done now, Dr. Stall and I urged.

Although we have seen some improvements in access to PPE, testing, and the important inclusion of essential care partners since the first wave, we have seen no action whatsoever on staffing. We have heard promises of four worked hours of care, but these are empty promises because there have been no directives to hire more staff in this sector, or more importantly, to channel the required funding for this to happen. One reporter at today’s media conference (Chelsea Nash of Rabble.ca) asked how the announcement to hire resident support aides (RSA) (made in early November) will help during this emergency. I was direct and honest in my answer: we will not support Band-Aid solutions to this problem. A person trained for a few days, with all due respect, can never provide what a PSW, RPN, RN and NP can provide. I would rather have an essential care partner take on that role than someone who has been displaced from the hospitality sector and receives almost no training in working with older persons.  Of course displaced workers – all of them! – need support, but not in this form where they will endanger residents, themselves and potentially their own families. Essential care partners know much more about what their loved ones need than someone who will only receive a few days of training to care for our most vulnerable.

The lack of political will and courage is a major barrier we must address at this crucial stage of the pandemic. But another equally troubling barrier is the bias and discrimination we are seeing towards vulnerable populations, such as LTC residents, people experiencing homelessness and Indigenous communities. We talked today about structural ageism and the complacency we are seeing with the ongoing loss of life due to COVID-19. It seems that many people have become numb to the tragic numbers, as if it’s just numbers we’re talking about – not the lives of people leaving behind traumatized loved ones and staff.

Today, we thanked the media and urged them to keep this issue front-and-centre. I also took the opportunity to thank the media for continuing to approach RNAO for comment and perspective. Each and every media outlet must keep talking about the implications of doing too little, too late while people die and the healthcare system becomes overwhelmed. They must continue to remind us these are not just numbers – they are human beings, our cherished parents, grandparents, and friends. We must all raise our voices both in our personal and professional roles. Our collective efforts will force the change we need for the most vulnerable among us.

Please take some time to watch the media conference online here. You will find the press coverage of our media conference in the RNAO COVID-19 press room (the items will be posted on Monday). We also urge you to watch RNAO’s Nov. 9 Cross Country Meeting: Mobilizing Collective Action for Long-Term Care Reform in Canada. We will continue this important conversation at our next COVID-19 webinar on Nov. 14 (see details next).