Of the over three million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, more than 53,000 of those are in Canada. Half of the over 3,200 coronavirus disease-related deaths are linked to outbreaks in long-term care homes.
The most common way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, and an uninfected person comes into contact with these droplets and touches their mouth, nose or eyes before washing their hands, the uninfected person can become infected.
Because many long-term care homes have common shared spaces and staff members often travel between multiple health care facilities, residents are vulnerable to infection.
While these facilities are provincially mandated, federal health officials are offering interim guidance for long-term care homes in an effort to slow the virus’ spread.
On Monday, April 13, the Public Health Agency of Canada announced guidelines for those living and working in long-term care homes, which can also be applied to retirement homes and residential homes for those with developmental disabilities.
Recommendations include restricting visitors and volunteers, staff and essential visitor screenings, wearing masks and other personal protective equipment, limiting employees to working in a single facility and maintaining physical distance during meals.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, said the guidelines are based on other countries’ experiences and will continue to evolve throughout the pandemic.
“Many of the deaths across Canada are linked to long-term care facilities and these devastating events have underscored the need for stringent infection prevention and control measures. This guidance was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Infection Prevention and Control, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, to prevent COVID-19 transmission and infections among residents, health care workers and other essential staff in long-term care facilities,” she said.
The guidelines are causing some staffing shortages as employees who work at multiple facilities are being asked to choose one for now. Employees who are off sick or self-isolating because they were exposed to an infected person also contribute to the short-staffing care homes are experiencing.
When dementia consultant and educator Karen Tyrell learned that a local retirement home was short-staffed due to the federal guidelines, she and her husband decided to help out.
“I used to work on the front lines. It’s nice to go back to that,” she said.
Tyrell explained in addition to the staffing situation, there are extra duties such as taking temperatures, asking questions and increased cleaning and sanitizing routines, which are impacting care homes.
“In the home I’m working at, there are one hundred or so residents and they’re spacing out meal time – one person per table where it used to be four. The tablecloth has to be removed after each person to keep infection down. This is additional time and work,” she said.
With the added pressure on health care workers and residents, Tyrell attempts to relieve the stress by staying positive. She also marks her mask with a grin so others know she’s smiling.
While the infection control guidelines are implemented across the country in long-term care facilities, other vulnerable populations are in danger of being overlooked by the system.
Lloyd Rang’s 92-year-old mother is one such person. While she lives in a Christian retirement community, it is classed as a senior’s apartment building and is neither regulated by the government nor required to conform to the federal guidelines.
“It’s run by a management company and the tenants are assumed to be self-sufficient, healthy, capable of mind and so forth. They are largely responsible for their own care,” he said.
Rang, a speechwriter and columnist for Christian Courier, said while the management company and staff members are doing their best to follow established best practices, these types of complexes aren’t equipped to respond to a health crisis.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rang had concerns for his mother’s safety. Once he was able to speak with the building administration’s CEO, they were able to take appropriate action and develop a system for delivering groceries and staying in touch.
“The point is they’re not resourced to do this. They’re not expected to do this, or required. There is a big, huge gap in the system,” he said. “Pandemic sheds light on the cracks and this is one of the cracks.”
Faith leaders stand together
On March 30, a document signed by more than 90 inter-faith religious leaders in Canada was released to share a message of hope, gratitude and solidarity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The document rallies Canadians to pay greater attention to the needs of our most at-risk populations, including the homeless, the incarcerated, the elderly, women and children facing violence and those already living in social isolation.
“We must never overlook or exclude these groups from our planning, preparedness and response to this pandemic. We are particularly mindful of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, including isolated Northern communities, who were already facing pre-existing challenges and for whom the COVID-19 outbreak could prove singularly devastating. Likewise, we need to remember the needs and vulnerabilities of the many refugees and migrant workers who have come to Canada seeking safety and security.
“During this time of crisis, we as religious leaders wish to offer words of appreciation and gratitude. Health care professionals are providing unfailing and dedicated service under stressful and difficult circumstances. They provide for us a powerful witness of care, expertise and service in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”