TORONTO - Ontario is calling in military assistance and expanding testing as it battles the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care homes, where nearly 3,000 people have been infected and almost 450 residents have died.
Premier Doug Ford said that he would make a formal request Wednesday for reinforcements from the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canadian Forces personnel.
"We're in the thick of a raging battle against COVID-19 in our long-term care homes," he said. "When you're in a fight like this you leave nothing on the table."
The additional personnel will provide operational and logistical assistance so long-term care staff can focus on the care of residents, Ford said. They will be deployed to five priority homes, Ford said. Those locations haven't been determined yet.
"Things change very quickly, sometimes hour by hour," Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said when asked. "That military assistance will go to the homes in greatest need and so I will leave it there."
There have been at least 448 deaths in long-term care — including one personal support worker — amid outbreaks at 127 facilities, according to ministry data. That is 49 more deaths since the previous day.
There were 367 new cases in residents reported in the past day, and 90 new cases in staff. In total, 1,985 residents and 957 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
Ontario also announced Wednesday it is expanding testing to all 78,000 residents and 56,000 health workers in long-term care homes.
Provincial health officials have previously resisted calls for such widespread testing of asymptomatic people, but a new memo from the deputy ministers of health and long-term care, as well as the chief medical officer of health, tells public health units (PHUs) to immediately develop plans for the broad testing.
"This point-in-time testing will enable homes, PHUs, and the province to better understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in long-term care homes and inform future planning," the officials write.
"Testing is an important component of a comprehensive response plan being implemented to address COVID-19 in this vulnerable population in order to ensure that these facilities have every resource needed to stop the spread of COVID-19."
Homes with current outbreaks should be prioritized, as should the testing of residents, but it's also important to understand the prevalence among staff, the memo said.
A number of homes have been particularly hard hit, including Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto with 36 deaths, Orchard Villa Long-Term Care Home in Pickering with 31 deaths, Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon with 29 deaths, and Altamont Care Community in Toronto with 24 deaths. A personal support worker who worked at that facility also died.
Several other homes have also had more than 20 deaths, though Pinecrest hasn't recorded any new deaths in two weeks.
Expanded testing guidance earlier this month told public health units to test any asymptomatic contacts of a confirmed positive case in a home, including residents in adjacent rooms, but stopped short of directing that all residents and staff be tested.
The premier spoke out two weeks ago about a testing shortfall in the province, and said he wanted to see every long-term care resident and worker tested. He said Wednesday that he was frustrated it took so long to come to fruition.
"There's many people, I was one of them, sitting there beating the drums two weeks ago saying we need everyone tested," Ford said.
"As much as people may think I can jump in there and overturn what the chief medical officer says, I can't."
Chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said some health units did studies and found asymptomatic residents and staff at long-term care facilities were actually positive for COVID-19.
"This provoked the fact that our command team said, 'I think in that case we're going to have to start testing everybody,'" Williams said.
Ontario has also deployed hospital resources to long-term care homes, and launched 31 infection prevention and control interventions. A new provincial portal for health staffing during the pandemic has also matched 400 people such as retired health professionals with jobs in long-term care.
The head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said Wednesday that she was surprised by Ford's decision to call in the military instead of enlisting the help of local health care professionals in long-term care homes.
Chief Executive Officer Doris Grinspun said her association had been talking to the government about providing additional staffing support and those workers would be better suited to care for seniors than the military teams.
"I'm puzzled and startled by this," she said. "We are ready to help, just tell us where you need us."
Provincewide, Ontario reported 510 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 37 more deaths. That data is taken from a different system than the specific long-term care data and the two are often out of sync.
The new cases raise the provincial total to 12,245 — a 4.3 per cent increase over Tuesday, which is the lowest growth rate in weeks.
The total also includes 659 deaths and 6,221 cases that have been resolved, which puts the proportion of those cases over 50 per cent for the first time.
While health officials have said community spread appears to be peaking, cases in long-term care continue to rise.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2020.
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