TORONTO — It was pouring rain when Kara Ferreira returned to her mother’s nursing home in late April to choose an outfit for her to be buried in. Along with her husband and sister, she wore personal protective equipment (PPE) because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the home.
After she chose a fluffy purple sweater and butterfly brooch, staff asked why Ferreira wasn’t taking the rest of her mother’s belongings.
She believed they may be contaminated because her mother and her roommate both had the novel coronavirus. So staff at Grace Manor in Brampton, Ont., said they’d get rid of them.
“The next day we drove by, and it was all over the front lawn, just there sitting out in the rain — keepsakes, clothing, everything,” she told HuffPost Canada. “It was just horrible, horrible, disrespectful.”
She called it her “oh my God” moment, when she realized, “they have no process for families to pick up things safely. And they act like it’s no big deal.”
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Ferreira’s mother, 73-year-old Elise Arthur, is one of 12 Grace Manor residents who died with COVID-19 during the outbreak.
Grace Manor was one of the five homes included in a May military report that Premier Doug Ford described as “appalling.” Soldiers who were deployed to homes on April 28 — the same day Arthur died — were not asked to report back on what they found, but said they felt obligated to do so.
Ferreira is now the representative plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Holland Christian Homes claiming at least $10 million for negligence, gross negligence, breach of contract and wrongful death. She says the home left Arthur in a room with someone showing symptoms of COVID-19 for more than a week.
Holland Christian Homes’ CEO said the company cannot answer specific questions about Arthur’s care, citing privacy.
“As always, the health and safety of the residents and staff in our homes is our top priority,” Ken Rawlins told HuffPost by email.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed our organization the opportunity to prove our commitment to providing a supportive, secure and caring environment that offers high quality care to our residents.”
While Ferreira was dealing with her mother’s death and the “agonizing” weeks leading up to it, an association that represents Holland Christian Homes was hiring half a dozen lobbyists.
Well-connected lobbyists hit Queen’s Park
Holland Christian Homes is a non-profit organization but it’s a member of the Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA), an industry group that’s made up of mostly for-profit long-term care providers.
The OLTCA sent lobbyists to Queen’s Park this spring for the first time in three years. Lobbyists work on behalf of organizations or corporations to influence public policy and must register with the government’s integrity commissioner.
Three of the lobbyists they hired were donors and former employees or advisors of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives. One other, Carly Luis, went on to be hired by Health Minister Christine Elliott in September.
The lobbyists have not responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment or were unavailable for interviews. A spokesperson for Ford declined to comment on whether being lobbied by their political donors and former staff puts the PCs in a conflict of interest. A spokesperson for Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton did not respond.
In June, CBC News reported that Ontario was considering some type of legal immunity for long-term care homes and the OLTCA came out to say it supported the idea.
“Civil liability protection is a necessary measure to stabilize and renew Ontario’s entire long-term care sector,” CEO Donna Duncan said at the time.
“Without it, many insurance companies will cease coverage and long-term care providers would be unable to continue operating.”
In October, Attorney General Doug Downey introduced Bill 218. It protects businesses of all kinds from being sued for exposing people to COVID-19, even if they were negligent. Organizations can still be sued if it is proven in court that they were “grossly” negligent.
A spokesperson for the OLTCA declined to answer specific questions about whether the lobbyists were hired to push for liability protection, but pointed HuffPost to a previous statement.
“This approach, consistent with British Columbia, is recognition of the unprecedented nature of this virus that all frontline services faced,” Duncan said in the statement. “It in no way absolves responsibility when it comes to issues of gross negligence.”
‘Get out of jail’ card
Ferreira and her lawyer said they were shocked when the government tabled Bill 218.
“I’m disgusted,” Ferreira said. “These homes will be gifted a ‘get out of jail’ card. In my mind, they issued my mother a death sentence.”
Rawlins said Holland Christian Homes respects Ferreira’s right to share her concerns through litigation.
“It is also important that all involved have the chance to present information to the court, which then thoughtfully studies, measures and determines if a concern permits certification,” he said.
Ferreira’s lawyer, Gary Will, said he didn’t believe Ford would shield homes from lawsuits because of his response to the military’s report.
“He was visibly upset at what he had read,” Will said. “He said, ‘There’s going to be accountability. There’s going to be responsibility. There’s going to be justice for these families.’
“I took him at his word.”
The military report contained one of the same allegations Ferreira said her mother had made: staff at Grace Manor were reusing contaminated PPE. It also said staff were aggressive with residents, didn’t assist those who needed help eating and didn’t wash their hands or change gloves between patients.
The soldiers and their report came too late to help Arthur. She died in hospital on April 28, the same day the military arrived at Grace Manor.
‘Things you will dwell on for a lifetime’
Ferreira said if she had known what was going on earlier, she would have gone in with “whatever hazmat suit” she had to put on and removed her mother.
“That’s just things you will dwell on for a lifetime, knowing that you didn’t take action.”
Will said he expects their lawsuit to be successful, even with the new rules in Bill 218.
“It will make the fight more difficult and longer,” he said. “But it’s a fight that we will prevail in.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said before this year, the Ontario Long Term Care Association hadn’t sent lobbyists to Queen’s Park for seven years. In fact, one lobbyist worked for the OLTCA into 2017.