TORONTO — Whistleblowers saved lives during the first wave of COVID-19 in Ontario’s long-term care homes, the patient ombudsman said in a report Thursday. And they need legal protection so they can keep speaking up.
“Many of the whistleblowers Patient Ombudsman spoke with were very fearful of retaliation and the impact speaking to our office would have on their jobs,” the new report said.
“There has been discussion of legislation to protect businesses and employers from liability resulting from the pandemic. Healthcare workers who are at risk of infection and choose to raise alarms when patients and residents in their care are at risk are no less deserving of protection.”
Patient ombudsman Cathy Fooks investigates complaints about Ontario’s health-care system. Her office put out a call for complaints about COVID-19 in April after receiving several “very concerning reports” and announced its investigation into long-term care in June.
The office received 20 complaints from staff in long-term care homes and many more from “unidentified staff members raising serious concerns.”
These workers reported:
- COVID-19-positive staff were being forced to work;
- Residents’ lives were in danger because they weren’t being fed properly or given their medicine due to staffing shortages;
- COVID-19-positive residents were not being isolated from others;
- Staff were not given personal protective equipment (PPE) and not allowed to bring their own because it would “alarm” residents;
- Errors in documenting COVID-19 cases meant that staff were unknowingly caring for patients who had the virus without PPE.
“Patient Ombudsman commends the courage of those health care workers that spoke out about what they saw, heard and experienced in Ontario’s long-term care homes. The information these individuals provided brought needed attention to the appalling circumstances in a number of Ontario’s longterm care homes and likely spurred the government to take significant action, including calling in the Canadian Armed Forces,” the report said.
The investigation is still ongoing but Thursday’s report made preliminary recommendations to Premier Doug Ford’s government.
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said that whistleblowers do have some protection under the Long-Term Care Homes Act but that the ombudsman wants something stronger.
“We take those recommendations to heart,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park.
“We need to make sure that people can come forward with concerns about shortcomings or issues … The more these things are hidden, the harder it is to find them and address them.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the report shows that Ford’s “penny-pinching” is causing problems.
“The report from the Patient Ombudsman paints a harrowing and devastating picture of the chaos in our long-term care homes during the first wave of COVID-19,” the Opposition leader said in a statement. “Because Doug Ford didn’t want to invest in safety measures, homes were chronically understaffed without the infection controls and personal protective equipment they needed to control outbreaks.”
Ford’s government has also launched a commission to look into the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario’s long-term care homes.
The commission recently heard from the head of an association that represents hundreds of homes. She said funding cuts made by Ford’s government in 2019 were “profoundly destabilizing.”
“We say that we were facing a perfect storm as we got into COVID-19,” Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, said.
The association first rang the alarm about COVID-19 in January, Duncan said. Ford’s government published its action plan for the sector on April 15.
Long-term care residents have accounted for 65.3 per cent of Ontario’s 2,992 COVID-19-related deaths. Eight staff members have also died.
There are currently 57 outbreaks in homes.