B.C. VIEWS: Pandemic shows need for adequate care home staffing

The current COVID-19 crisis is revealing gaps in our society that have been all too easy to ignore – the care of the elderly for example, and in particular, their vulnerability in long-term care facilities.

So far, nearly all the deaths in B.C. have been care home residents.

Of the 21 facilities affected by the virus in B.C., the worst hit is the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, which reported last week 70 cases among employees and residents.

Across Canada, the toll is higher, most notably in Ontario where 12 residents have died in one home alone. In Quebec, some 500 care homes have reported outbreaks.

The risk seniors face is nothing new. The threat of a viral outbreak is something care home staff, residents and their families brace for.

Compromised health of some residents and their confined living space makes them particularly susceptible to even minor influenza outbreaks. Like a spark in a tinder-dry forest, illness can spread quickly and with devastating results.

The novel coronavirus is proving far more deadly. Some estimates put the fatality rate for seniors who contract the disease at 15 per cent.

The impact extends beyond physical health. Residents in affected homes face isolation from family and friends at a time when they most need comfort and reassurance.

Senior health officials in both B.C. and the rest of Canada say they’re stepping up efforts to identify and contain outbreaks quickly. Yet, the challenges they face are ones that have been there for years.

Chronic understaffing has been a long-standing concern. As far back as 2009, the provincial government identified a staffing target of 3.36 hours per resident. By 2016, according to the Office of the Seniors Advocate, only 19 per cent of facilities had reached that goal.

Those targets still aren’t being met; meaning today there’s insufficient staff to provide the care that officials felt was optimal more than a decade ago – and that was under normal circumstances.

B.C. Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has ordered facilities not to share staff in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from one facility to the next. But given the scarcity of qualified personnel, that order has been difficult to implement.

Nonetheless, Dr. Henry remained confident last week that aggressive steps taken after the initial outbreaks to contain the spread of the virus within care homes were paying off.

Critical weeks and even months still lie ahead, of course. Frontline workers, already stretched thin, will be challenged to provide care and comfort under the most trying circumstances. Their dedication deserves to be recognized.

However, when we do emerge on the other side of this pandemic, questions will need to be asked. Prior to the outbreak, the health ministry had already taken over management of four private-run care homes in B.C. because of concerns.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie released a report in February that cited lower pay and fewer dollars spent on patient care at for-profit care homes, versus non-profit and public care facilities.

Our seniors deserve better.

They and their families deserve the confidence that adequate staffing is in place – not just in normal times, but especially when they are at critical risk.

If that requires structural changes in the way we manage long-term care in this province, then that’s a conversation we must have.

Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor. Email him at greg.knill.@blackpress.ca

Greg Knill

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