POLITICS
07/08/2020 10:27 EDT | Updated 07/08/2020 18:48 EDT

Ontario Long-Term Care Homes Without Air Conditioning Add To Heartbreak For Families

Premier Doug Ford suggested residents haven’t been provided with adequate air conditioning because operators are reluctant to spend the money.

On Sunday, one of the hottest days of the year in southern Ontario, Nick Puopolo sweated in his mother’s long-term care room, feeding her ice cream and helping her sip water as two fans whirled with little effect. 

Her private room at the for-profit long-term care home Woodbridge Vista Care Community — one of Ontario’s long-term care homes hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic — does not have air conditioning. Only the common areas do, but Savirea, 85, a COVID-19 survivor, is bedridden and never gets relief from the heat, Puopolo said. 

Puopolo was allowed to visit only because staff believed his mother was nearing the end of her life. He recorded the temperature in her room at 27 C. By the nurse’s station, he said the temperature was 26 C. 

He is afraid his mother will suffer from potentially fatal dehydration — she is in the same home where an elderly man died in late May of exhaustion not caused by COVID-19, but rather malnutrition. His family found him in a sweltering room without air conditioning, reported CBC News.

The high temperatures in Woodbridge Vista persist, capping off several “heart-wrenching” months that have destroyed any trust Puopolo said he had in Ontario’s long-term care system. 

“It’s been one disappointment and complaint after another,” he told HuffPost Canada. “And nobody is taking responsibility.” 

Nick Puopolo/Supplied
Nick Puopolo and his mother Savirea in an undated photo. Savirea is now 85 and lives at one of Ontario’s long-term care homes hardest hit by COVID-19.

Ontario’s long-term care homes aren’t required to have air conditioning in residents’ rooms, but according to the legislation are supposed to keep temperatures below 22 C. Regardless, too-hot facilities are a persistent problem across the nursing home sector in Ontario.

After HuffPost Canada contacted Sienna Senior Living, which operates Woodbridge Vista, on Tuesday, spokesperson Natalie Gokchenian said the home is going to install 18 air conditioners the following day, although she did not specify where. Woodbridge Vista has 224 beds.

Gokchenian noted that due to COVID-19 safety measures that include keeping doors closed and limiting the use of fans, cooler air from the common area is not being circulated throughout the building, making it hotter than usual, although Puopolo said the heat has been an issue ever since his mother moved in four years ago.  

“We want to assure families that we are doing everything possible to ensure our residents are comfortable and cool during this period,” Gokchenian said in an email. “We are also looking at additional long-term solutions.” 

Premier Doug Ford told reporters this week that the issue “drives him crazy” and his government is going to “move forward” to change the long-term care act to make it mandatory for residents’ rooms to be air conditioned.

Ford suggested that companies haven’t taken initiative because they don’t want to spend the money, although Sienna Senior Living made $669.7 million in revenue last year. 

“I’d like to stick [the owners] in the room for 24 hours at 30 C heat and see how they like it, or put their parents in there,” Ford said passionately. “This is all about dollars. We’ll change it. I’ll call them personally.

Health Minister Christine Elliott added that the province wants “residents to be safe and comfortable and living in that degree of heat is absolutely not comfortable.”

Temperatures nearing 30 C aren’t only uncomfortable — they pose a threat to residents’ health, especially those who have chronic health conditions, including COVID-19, said University of Ottawa physiologist Dr. Glen Kenny. 

“These are dangerous temperatures that can cause heat stress and exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions in elderly patients,” Kenny told HuffPost. He researches how the human body regulates heat. “It poses a greater burden on the heart. It’s comparable to straining during exercise.”

And during COVID-19 isolation measures, residents are stuck in enclosed rooms that get progressively hotter, much like a car on a summer’s day, Kenny said. 

Nick Puopolo/Supplied
Thermostat readings near a nursing station, left, and in Savirea Puopolo's room at the Woodbridge Vista Care Community in Vaughan, Ont., on July 5, 2020.

Savirea tested positive for COVID-19 this spring, along with more than 100 residents in Woodbridge Vista. Dozens of residents have died from COVID-19 and related illnesses and neglect, according to a $15 million class action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents and their families. (Puopolo and his family are not part of the lawsuit.) 

In June, the hospital William Osler Health System took over Woodbridge Vista’s management and the military assisted in providing care. 

In recent weeks, Saveria tested negative for COVID-19, but her health continued to deteriorate. 

Puopolo and his family visited for the first time in months. 

“She was in terrible shape, pretty much on her death bed. It was heart wrenching,” said Puopolo. “She was dehydrated, she wasn’t eating, she was totally incoherent.” 

The family consulted an outside physician who determined Savirea was suffering from a urinary tract infection — one of the most common infections reported in nursing homes, according to Public Health Ontario

They’ve hired a private personal support worker to care for her three hours a day, because Puopolo said there aren’t enough staff at Woodbridge Vista to ensure his mother is regularly bathed, fed and given water, especially now that the military has left, and Sierra Living is set to resume managing the home at the end of the month. 

Thanks to the extra care and visitors, Puopolo said his mother is now “bouncing back.”

UPDATE - 4 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story said Premier Doug Ford is going to push long-term care operators to install air conditioners in residents’ rooms. He has now stated his government is looking to amend legislation to make it mandatory.