10/19/2020 15:49 EDT | Updated 10/20/2020 10:51 EDT

Ontario Minister Flip-Flops In Under An Hour On Long-Term Care Staffing

The ministry identified the need for thousands of PSWs in long-term care in the summer.

UPDATE - Oct. 20, 2020: Minister Merrilee Fullerton clarified in question period Tuesday that there was a staffing crisis in long-term care before her government took office, but the ministry is ensuring homes in a COVID-19 outbreak have adequate staff.

An Ontario minister contradicted herself Monday, an hour after she said there were no issues with staff numbers in long-term care — and then denied she made the original statement. 

“The numbers are indicating that our staff are much more secure in their positions,” Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said in question period. “Our homes are doing well with staffing. There are no issues with staffing collapse in our homes.”

She then walked back her statement immediately after question period.

“To be clear, I don’t believe I’ve ever said there are no staffing issues,” she said when asked by HuffPost Canada how she knew homes had adequate staff.

Fullerton said the province closely monitors homes that have an outbreak to ensure they have adequate staff and evaluate whether they need support from a hospital or community paramedics. 

Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton answers questions during the daily briefing at Queen's Park in Toronto, Ont. on May 28, 2020.

“But in terms of the staffing crisis, it was pre-existing before COVID and we were working to address the pipeline and the retention,” she said. She pointed to the province’s temporary wage increase, which will give an additional $3 per hour to about 50,000 long-term care workers.

On Oct. 6, an official in Fullerton’s ministry, Melanie Fraser, told Ontario’s long-term care commission that during the summer, “we felt like we were 6,000 PSWs short of what would be required across long-term care and home and community care.” 

Fraser, associate deputy minister of health service, said the estimate, developed around the end of the pandemic’s first wave, shows the need for that number of PSWs to be split about halfway between long-term care and community care.

Fullerton said if there were 6,000 PSWs available to be hired, they could have been hired. 

“I don’t believe that there were 6,000 PSWs coming forward, and I believe it speaks to the importance of creating a culture and [an] environment in long-term care where people want to come and work,” she said.

“I hear various people say well, you know, you need an adequate number of staff, hire more staff. Well I know our homes would love to do that. We have to create a pipeline, so that people want to go into the sector.”

She repeated a phrase she used during question period, that you can’t simply “snap your fingers” to create a PSW. 

“We’re looking everywhere to find flexibility and make flexibility for our sector as we headed into the first wave to make sure that they had the flexibility needed because of the shortage of PSWs. So that shouldn’t be news, but unfortunately it is,” the minister said. 

The province’s staffing study released at the end of July found the state of long-term care staffing is a “crisis” and recommended the sector hire more staff so residents can receive high-quality care.

There is a revolving door of underpaid, part-time workers run off their feet.Andrea Horwath

Ontario has given $540 million for the long-term care sector to deal with the second wave of COVID-19 infections, including money to help with staffing supports, hire more infection prevention and control staff and others. 

In September, the province told long-term care homes that it’s up to them to ensure they have enough staff for the second wave. The ministry gave the province’s long-term care homes a second-wave preparedness assessment in the summer, but it did not require those assessments to be sent back for verification and review.

“Long-term care homes are so short-staffed, residents are regularly neglected. People get sick from dehydration and malnourishment. There is a revolving door of underpaid, part-time workers run off their feet,” Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said in a Monday press release.

“And so far, over 1,900 residents have died from COVID-19. We have to take action to protect them this time, and we have to do it now with thousands more, well-paid and well-trained staff.”