Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's Minister of Long-Term Care, said Monday the changes for long-term care homes in Ontario were needed long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and began taking thousands of lives of senior citizens.
Fullerton was taking part in an online news briefing in response to the release of the final report of Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission, which was tabled on Friday. Fullerton spoke to the commission report and criticisms, but cut the event short after 21 minutes. The events normally run 45 minutes to an hour long.
"Of all COVID-19 deaths in Ontario in 2020, 61 per cent were long-term care residents. By the end of April 2020, 11 staff and almost 4,000 residents in Ontario's long-term care homes had died," said the report.
Fullerton denied a previous media report that quoted her as saying last fall that COVID-19 was comparable to a bad flu year
"I never did compare COVID-19 to the flu. That was not a comparison. What I was suggesting at the time was, you know, we have to improve long-term care. Deaths in long-term care due to infections and outbreaks have been going on for many years and I certainly would have to refute that statement," said Fullerton, who is also a physician. She said she knows the issues in long-term care and said one of her parents was in long-term care.
"I think we should all collectively want to make this better and why it has taken a pandemic to reach this point I can't quite understand," said Fullerton.
"I know I am fixing this problem. Our government is fixing this problem. My heart goes out to everyone who has been impacted," she added.
"This was a war in our long-term care homes and our long term-care homes were on the front line," she continued.
Fullerton said Ontario had reached the need for change in LTC after years and years of inaction.
"People's lives must not have been lost in vain. This must be the tipping point," she said.
She said Ontario needs to move forward by looking at LTC staffing, looking at infection prevention and control (IPAC) measures and even looking at the emotional and psychological well-being of the elderly as issues that need to be addressed.
Fullerton commented in general on the recommendations in the LTC commission report saying many of them are in line with actions the government has already initiated.
She said this included urgently upgrading the staffing issue, better wages and investing in stronger IPAC measures.
Fullerton said this also included more than 20,000 new LTC spaces and 15,000 upgraded LTC spaces in development.
"Overall our government is investing more than $9.6 billion - new dollars - in the pandemic, to shore up staff and modernize our long-term care homes."
She also endorsed the recommendation of counselling for all LTC residents and staff, something Fullerton said should be done immediately.
Fullerton also said many of the recommendations "require further investigation" and she promised to provide regular updates.
After presenting her statement, Fullerton said she was ready to take questions from the media. The first question, which quoted the report that 26 residents died of neglect and dehydration, asked Fullerton when she first learned of that.
Fullerton did not respond directly but said she was grateful to medical professionals of the Canadian military who responded to outbreaks in several LTC homes in Southern Ontario last spring. She said the commission recommendations for better staffing were "helpful and insightful".
The reporter, in her follow up question, said Fullerton did not answer the first question. The follow up questions asked about the previously mentioned comparison Fullerton made about COVID-19 and the flu, which she denied.
The second media question asked Fullerton what the government would have done differently back during the first wave of 2020. Fullerton admitted it was difficult to keep up with the pandemic as things were changing.
"The government measures and processes; we were trying to move fast for government. And COVID-19 was moving faster. I think lessons learned from the first wave applied to the second wave."
She said this included new people hired for LTC homes, and added, "It was not enough."
In the follow-up question, Fullerton was asked if she or the government would apologize "for what happened in long-term care."
In responding, Fullerton never used the word apologize, but said some "soul searching" was needed in trying to find out why it took a pandemic to address the staffing and capacity issues in long-term care.
She said her government, which came into power in October 2018, began right away to address the wait-list issue for LTC homes. Fulleton said it was made clear in the commission report and the recent Auditor General's report that these were long standing issues, a clear reference to the Queen's Park Liberals who were in power from 2003 to 2018.
"But the responsibility has fallen to our government," said Fullerton.
"I absolutely take responsibility for the well-being of residents in long-term care."
The final questioning focused on the need to make wages better along with improving working conditions. Fullerton asked when LTC workers can expect to see better wages.
She responded that the Commission spoke about the need to level the playing field with pay parity in health care.
"We have to be very thoughtful about how we approach this," said Fullerton adding that any change in one field of health care could spark new changes in other fields of health care.
She said it was a complex system that needed to be balanced. She added that the staffing issues also have to address better training and leadership.
The reporter said he didn't hear an answer to his question. The reporter then asked about what to say to workers who are thinking of quitting their jobs and leaving the LTC system.
"What kind of message are you sending them with an answer like that. You didn't answer the question," said the reporter.
"Well I would disagree with you," said Fullerton.
She said she reiterated what her government had done with the process and that issues of pay parity and levelling the field were being addressed.
She said the government wants PSWs (personal support workers) to be supported, as they are the backbone of long-term care.
Fullerton repeated that the lives lost in the early days of the pandemic are lives that must not have been lost in vain. She said the current government is repairing a system "that has been neglected for many, many years."
"We are fixing a broken system," said Fullerton.
Moments later, Fullerton said thank you for the interest, and then she left the podium.
She was asked to stay a little longer as several reporters were waiting on phone lines to take part, as well as two other reporters in the Queen's Park media studio.
No answer was given.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.