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Officials say ventilation woes not key factor in COVID-19 spread at Montreal home

MONTREAL — A ventilation problem at a hard-hit Montreal long-term care home where a majority of residents contracted COVID-19 wasn't likely the principal factor in the virus spread, public health authorities said Thursday.

MONTREAL — A ventilation problem at a hard-hit Montreal long-term care home where a majority of residents contracted COVID-19 wasn't likely the principal factor in the virus spread, public health authorities said Thursday.

The home in question, Vigi Mont-Royal, has seen 70 residents die and numerous staff fall ill.

A problem with the ventilation system was noticed on May 8 by the regional health authority, which noted employees were getting sick in droves.

Quebec's public health director said while proper air filtration is beneficial for other reasons, it's unlikely to have been the key factor in COVID-19 transmission at the home.

"It's a very low factor in the transmission," Dr. Horacio Arruda told reporters in Montreal. "I think there are probably other factors related to the difficulty to apply (prevention and control of infections measures) in those settings, which are not like a hospital. It's like a home, there are a lot of objects to clean."

Dr. Mylene Drouin, Montreal's public health director, agreed that outbreaks in long-term care homes are hard to control because applying "the gold standard" for the prevention and control of infections is complicated.

The regional health board said it noticed a high number of infections in staff sent to help at Vigi-Mont-Royal, located in the suburb Town of Mount Royal, and conducted an investigation.

"We were concerned that members of our staff deployed to Vigi Mont-Royal came down with the virus even though they were wearing the appropriate protective equipment," spokeswoman Lauren Schwartz said in an email.

"As a result we brought in our infectious disease experts as well as an air quality specialist to investigate. It was determined that the ventilation system was malfunctioning."

Management at the private, subsidized long-term care home in Montreal said the necessary repairs were made, and air quality was excellent during a test this week.

Still, the facility was undergoing a floor-by-floor cleaning as suggested by the local health authority, which also plans to conduct further air quality tests.

"As a preventive measure, we're doing all the cleaning and ensuring we don't take any chances and that everything will be in compliance and go further than what was asked," said Jean Hebert, president of Vigi-Sante Ltd., which operates several long-term care homes in the Montreal area, a number of which have had COVID-19 outbreaks.

At the Vigi-Mont-Royal home, 124 residents have been infected with COVID-19, 26 are suspected to have the virus and 70 people have died, Hebert said. Thirty-two residents have been transferred to hospital.

Among employees, 91 are off the job because of COVID-19, seven are sidelined because they are believed to have the virus while 50 have come back to work, he said.

Those who've been working there — including members of the Canadian Armed Forces — have been wearing head-to-toe personal protective equipment, including N95 respirator masks.

Hebert said those measures were taken as a precaution, but as the deep cleaning is completed by Friday, they will go back to wearing regular masks.

Sonia Mancier, president of the union that represents workers at the home, noted employees were quickly falling ill. She said in this exceptional pandemic situation, employees should be properly protected.

"Today we are in a situation in long-term care homes where we shouldn't ask these questions. We should give the maximum equipment to everyone as a preventive measure and protect everyone," Mancier said.

"It's unacceptable that two months later, we announce deaths every day, and we're still talking about whether we provide this or that equipment."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press