Ontario is asking the Canadian military for help stopping the rapid spread of COVID-19 in long-term care homes, Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday.
Although he said a week ago that the province didn’t need to call in the military, the premier said front-line medical workers in those homes need more support. The novel coronavirus is “ruthlessly attacking” Ontario’s long-term care system, Ford said.
“As we need more resources, we’re bringing more resources in,” Ford said in response to questions from reporters about what changed his mind. “I’ve never been reluctant to call for help.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if the Canadian Armed Forces would agree to the government’s request. Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton declined to say where the extra help would be deployed, saying only that they would go to five homes that have been hit particularly hard by the virus.
Teams of about 50 from the military could be deployed to five hard-hit nursing homes, said Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health. The teams would be led by nurses and include medics and general military personnel who can be assigned to other tasks, he added.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault made a similar call for help last week. Workers at nursing homes there have abandoned their jobs as outbreaks worsened, and the province has struggled to fill staffing shortages.
The virus disproportionately sickens and kills elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, and once it gets inside a nursing home, it has proven difficult to stop. Infections inside long-term care are now accelerating even as community spread of the virus appears to be slowing.
At least 400 of Ontario’s 12,245 reported cases are linked to long-term care. And of Ontario’s 626 long-term care homes, at least 128 had reported COVID-19 outbreaks at the time of publication.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents nearly 70 per cent of the province’s private, not-for-profit, charitable, and municipal long-term care homes, praised the Progressive Conservative government’s move to call in the military.
“Today’s announcement, following similar measures in Quebec, will mean more support where it is needed most,” said the group’s CEO, Donna Duncan, in a statement.
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said an interview with National Observer that she’s “confused” as to why Ontario needs the military in this case. Quebec lacked a pool of nurses when it asked for help, but Ontario still has plenty who could be deployed, she added.
COVID-19 disproportionately sickens and kills elderly people, and has spread through nursing homes like wildfire. Now, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is asking the military for help to stop it.
“We can serve all of them,” she said. “Give me the names of the homes and we will send help.”
COVID-19 has become a 'wildfire' in long-term care
Nursing homes in Ontario have struggled with understaffing and underfunding issues that long predate the pandemic. And earlier this month, a CBC News investigation showed that under Ford, the government had largely stopped doing unannounced annual inspections of long-term care facilities, instead visiting the homes only in response to complaints.
Cases began erupting in Ontario long-term care homes last month. Last week, Ford said the virus was moving through long-term care homes like “wildfire,” and unveiled a new plan to address the crisis.
A central tenet of the plan was barring staff at homes from working at multiple facilities. Many work several jobs to make ends meet, but the practice is linked to the spread of the virus between homes.
That measure took a week to take effect, however, meaning Wednesday is the last day before workers must stick to one facility. The measure also exempts workers from agencies, which the Opposition NDP criticized as a significant loophole.
Ontario also announced Wednesday that it will begin screening all long-term care home residents for the virus, along with increased numbers of staff, stepping up a testing program it already upped last week.
It’s not clear when the increased testing will be rolled out. Though Ontario has lagged in screening for COVID-19, it is gradually increasing capacity, processing 10,000 tests a day as of Wednesday and aiming for 14,000 by the end of April.
Last week, Ford said he feels the province should open an inquiry into the state of long-term care once the pandemic is over. He also left open the possibility that such a probe could examine his government's response to the novel coronavirus.