EDITORIAL: COVID-19 variant in long-care term homes reveal need to rethink how LTC homes operate in Ontario

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Editorial

Last year was arguably one of the toughest years we encountered. The COVID-19 pandemic changed how society works, how people interact and how we earn our livelihoods. We entered 2021 with hope as vaccines come into play.

But it won’t be easy. As the rollout of vaccines is being hampered by its own issues that require immediate attention, Ontario health officials are now investigating the presence of the new COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom that is considered to more contagious. The U.K. B.1.1.7 variant was found in three retirement homes, including the Bradford Valley Care Community in Bradford West Gwillimbury, Ont., and the Roberta Place Long Term Care Home in Barrie.

The Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit found the genome following testing at the Roberta Place home. Testing confirmed that the variant was in other homes, including the Bradford Valley centre.

“The rapid spread, high attack rate and the devastating impact on residents and staff at Roberta Place long-term care home have been heartbreaking for all,” Charles Gardner, Medical Officer of Health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), said on Jan. 23.

Gardner said three days later the investigation found two persons positive for the United Kingdom variant. Shortly after, 99 people tested positive and the numbers are expected to fluctuate.

“This certainly makes us concerned that the variant may be more widespread, and that in turn means that we need to really take public health measures that prevent spread of the virus much more to heart,” he said.

Gardner rightly shared the information about the outbreak because of the speed the variant is moving through the central Ontario community and note “the only way it can move is through people.”

“We need to absolutely follow the stay-at-home order so that we can protect ourselves, those who are more vulnerable and our health care system,” he said. “We need to assume that a variant of this virus is everywhere and do everything we can to drive it out.”

Based on the current situation, all long-term care homes should restrict the visitors’ hours and lower the number of visitors coming into the building. That stay-at-home order is a good start no matter how fatigued we are by the lockdown and heartbroken about not seeing loved ones in LTC homes.

Elderly people appear to be more vulnerable to the virus than teenagers and adults, in part because of a weaker immune system that leads them to contract the virus faster than usual. That is the reason they are first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The government needs to come up with new and efficient guidelines to avoid more outbreaks.

Since 2020 began, the province recorded 20,077 cases inside all 626 long-term care homes across the province in which 14,264 are residents and 5,813 are staff members. As well, the Ontario long-term care homes suffered a huge loss with 3,473 total deaths of which 3,462 were residents and 11 were staff members. Throughout 2020, about 229 homes experienced outbreaks and 397 did not.

The arguments and statistics on the long-care homes suggest a new model is needed because, despite the guidelines, residents are still dying, contracting, and passing the virus. Ontario’s government must come up with a new plan in how LTC centres operate.

But until then, the best way to fight COVID-19 is to stay home as best as we can. And wear a mask if leaving home is necessary.