Long-term care inspections system was overwhelmed by first wave of COVID-19, ombudsman finds (Toronto Star)

September 7, 2023

7 September 2023

Ontario’s long-term care inspections branch was overwhelmed and “unprepared” during the first wave of COVID-19 says a new report from the province’s ombudsman, who has made 76 recommendations to improve the system.

Kristin Rushowy, Queen's Park Bureau
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September 7, 2023

With winter on the horizon and an expected uptick in COVID-19 cases, it’s time for the government to ensure inspections and other improved safety measures are in place for long-term care homes in the event of another crisis, said the provincial ombudsman in releasing his report on lessons learned during the pandemic.

“Tragically, the Ministry of Long-Term Care was unprepared and unable to ensure the safety of long-term care residents and staff during the pandemic’s first wave” that began in early 2020, said Paul Dubé Thursday morning at Queen’s Park about his report, which contains 76 recommendations for the government.

“Few knew that this oversight mechanism had fallen apart.”

Long-term care homes were particularly hard-hit during the pandemic, with 4,335 resident and 13 staff COVID-related deaths during the first two years.

Dubé said a deluge of complaints went ignored by the ministry’s inspections branch — its inspectors had ceased on-site inspections from March to June 2020 — and “many people who tried to make complaints about the conditions faced by loved ones in long-term care received ‘key messages’ from inspectors and had their files closed without further review or inspection.”

If enforcement action was taken, it was “limited,” he added.

Since then, however, the ministry has already made a number of changes, he noted.

Newly appointed Long-Term Care Minister Stan Cho said in a statement that “our government has accepted all of the ombudsman’s recommendations and has made progress on over half. This includes investing $72.3 million to double the number of new long-term care inspection staff, enhancing compliance and enforcement measures in the Fixing Long-Term Care Act to ensure residents receive the highest levels of care, and launching a new proactive investigations regime to address complaints and critical incidents promptly.”

In the early days of COVID-19, the minister in charge was Merrilee Fullerton, who has since left cabinet and resigned as an MPP.

Among Dubé’s recommendations is that the ministry should “ensure that the inspections branch always has inspectors immediately available to inspect on-site at long-term care homes … (and) should establish a policy clearly setting out what types of issues can be inspected using an off-site process, or a blended off-site and on-site approach.”

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the province had cut back on nursing home inspections prior to the pandemic, which “didn’t put us in a good position to be able to be ready when something happened.”

Dubé said additional inspectors have since been hired, and there are new laws, “but it remains to be seen with what inspections are carried out and what kind of enforcement is imposed when shortcomings are found … that’s why I rushed to get this report out and get these recommendations acted upon because winter’s coming and COVID is still around.”

Lisa Levin, head of AdvantAge Ontario representing almost 500 long-term care providers and supportive housing agencies, said homes “needed support with more staffing and quicker access to (personal protective equipment. Our staffing crisis has not ended.”