06/24/2020 17:25 EDT | Updated 06/25/2020 13:52 EDT

Merrilee Fullerton Denies COVID-19 Patients Were Refused Hospitalization

Multiple families have reported that long-term care homes said they wouldn’t transfer patients to hospital.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Ontario Minister of Long-term Care Merrilee Fullerton answers questions at a press conference in Toronto on May 28, 2020.

UPDATE - June 25, 2020: A spokesperson now says Minister Merrilee Fullerton’s comments only referred to government policy. Patients were never stopped by the government from being admitted to hospital, Gillian Sloggett said, and long-term care homes that denied patients hospitalization were not complying with government policy.

TORONTO — An Ontario minister says COVID-19 patients in long-term care homes were never denied hospitalization even though families say that isn’t true.

“If the resident or their guardian or their family wants them to be moved to a hospital, that is their right,” Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said during question period at Queen’s Park Wednesday. 

“There was never a situation where residents would be stopped from being moved to hospital if that’s what they wished.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath responded.

“I have to say that it’s frightening and in fact horrifying to hear in this Legislature that the Minister of Long-Term Care is basically telling all those families ... that they’re lying or they’re not telling the truth,” Horwath said. 

“That’s completely unacceptable and horrifying.”

Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks in the Ontario legislature in Toronto on May 12, 2020.

One daughter of a COVID-19 patient told HuffPost she was “incensed” at Fullerton’s comments. 

Raquel John-Matuzewiski says that staff at Orchard Villa long-term care in Pickering, Ont. told her by phone throughout early and mid-April that her father could not be transferred to hospital if he tested positive for COVID-19.

The home’s “devastating” plan was to put residents into palliative care if they caught the virus and allow one family member to visit to say goodbye, John-Matuzewiski said.

“It is infuriating to me,” she said about the minister’s comment. 

“Family members who are going through this ... we’re just being ignored. We’re actually being called liars.”

It is infuriating to me.Raquel John-Matuzewiski

A spokesperson for Fullerton said the province never directed long-term care homes not to transfer patients to hospital.

“The decision of whether to send long-term care residents who have COVID-19 to hospital is made on a case by case basis by a physician in consultation with the resident and their family. If residents who tested positive for COVID-19 require medical attention that the long-term care home is unable to provide, these residents are transferred to hospital to meet their health care needs,” Gillian Sloggett told HuffPost by email.

“At no point throughout this pandemic has the Chief Medical Officer of Health or our government suggested otherwise.”

Courtesy Raquel John-Matuzewiski
Raquel John-Matuzewiski poses with her father, Chester John, who caught COVID-19 at Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont.

John-Matuzewiski’s father, Chester John, was eventually transferred to hospital after his daughter told the home she would go in and remove him if staff refused.

The 79-year-old has now recovered from COVID-19 but needs treatment for malnutrition and dehydration, issues John-Matuzewiski says were caused by Orchard Villa’s “negligence.”

John-Matuzewiski found out her father had tested positive for the novel coronavirus on April 17. Later that week, she saw him on a FaceTime call and “knew immediately that he had to be removed.” 

She says she called Orchard Villa to insist he be taken to hospital and went to the home the day of the transfer, April 24, to make sure it actually happened.

“Something just told me I needed to do that … I knew it was either that or he would not be here.”

John wasn’t fed properly in the weeks leading up to his hospitalization, nor was he given “critical” medication for Parkinson’s, she said.

“This is absolutely unbelievable … This could be any of us. It’s not because people are older. We don’t know what ailments could put us in this position.”

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Participants hold a vigil for COVID-19 victims at Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont. on June 15, 2020.

John-Matuzewiski is now part of a $30-million class action against the company that owns the home, Southbridge Care Homes.

A spokesperson for Orchard Villa’s executive director Jason Gay did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Other family members have told similar stories about their experience with Orchard Villa. 

Cathy Parkes previously told HuffPost that Orchard Villa staff said her father did not qualify for oxygen nor hospitalization after his COVID-19 diagnosis. 

She told reporters this week that she has a “similar story” to John-Matuzewiski’s but with “a different ending.”

Her father Paul passed away on April 15.

Courtesy Cathy Parkes
Cathy Parkes poses with her father Paul Parkes in an undated photo.

He is one of 78 people who have died during the COVID-19 outbreak at Orchard Villa’s retirement and long-term care homes as of June 24.

Gay, the home’s director, previously told HuffPost that he could not answer questions about individual residents but that the home asked for help “early and often” and is appreciative for support from a nearby hospital network and the military.

“We appreciate that this is a difficult time for Ms. Parkes and are very sorry for her loss,” he said in a statement.

The facility was included in the Canadian Armed Forces report that shocked both the Ontario premier and the prime minister.

Soldiers sent to assist the home with its outbreak said they found it was infested with cockroaches and there was “no accountability for staff in regards to upholding basic care needs or best practices,” among other issues.

Gay said that the home is investigating the problems noted by the military.