Horwath calls for public inquiry, blames government for some long-term care deaths: Your COVID-19 roundup

Horwath calls for public inquiry, blames government for some long-term care deaths: Your COVID-19 roundup

David Hains and Sneh Duggal

Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath is calling for a public inquiry on long-term care following hundreds of deaths in the facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

The NDP leader issued the call in a Tuesday morning press conference, responding to a reporter's question about whether she thought it would be appropriate given the circumstances. "That's something I think is necessary," she responded, adding that long-term care has been in a "crisis situation" for quite some time.

She blamed the PCs and the preceding Liberal government for the situation, going so far as to say that they have responsibility for some pandemic deaths that could have been prevented if the long-term care situation was in a better state. "The fact that long-term care wasn't in any shape to be able to deal with this crisis was no surprise to anyone. What would have been the difference had the government dealt with that is we wouldn't have seen the number of deaths we have seen. I know that's pretty harsh, but I think it's pretty clear."

Horwath also called for an overhaul of the long-term care system, including a major rethink of the governance model. "There's no way that corporations should be making millions of dollars a year while treatment of seniors in long-term care is abominable." In a statement, the NDP also called for "Public Health to take over the direct management of long-term care homes where seniors aren’t well protected, plus mandated requirements for infection control, staffing and communication with residents and their families." The government has so far resisted the call to do so.

According to the latest Ministry of Long-term Care daily report, 705 LTC residents have died so far due to the coronavirus. At least one staff member has died too. There have been 1,180 coronavirus-related fatalities so far in Ontario, with almost 60 per cent of them coming in long-term care homes.

Responsibility for the readiness of long-term care homes has emerged as a political hot potato as the crisis has become particularly acute in the over 600 long-term care homes throughout the province, with Premier Doug Ford acknowledging today that progress has been made among the general public, but that significant efforts need to be made to turn the tide at long-term care facilities, calling the difference between them "two worlds."

Last week Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton deflected responsibility for the state of long-term care facilities, arguing that she was in the midst of an effort to modernize the facilities when the pandemic hit, and blamed society at large for not paying sufficient attention to her efforts. "I think as a society we have to understand why there was no interest in that process we had begun," she said on April 23.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca first called for a long-term care home inquiry on April 16, saying at the time that Fullerton's answers to date had not been satisfactory.

Horwath also raised questions about the government's approach to get back to work. While she supported the principle to take things slowly, she argued that significantly more testing and contact tracing capacity is needed in order to enable public health measures to be lifted, as well as additional personal protective equipment.

The NDP also called for presumptive WSIB coverage for people affected by COVID-19, with Horwath saying that MPP Wayne Gates will table a private member's bill on the matter.

Ontario and Quebec account for more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada, federal health officials said Tuesday as they released new projections on the expected prevalence of the novel coronavirus over the next week.

"The (epidemiological) picture in Canada continues to highlight regional differences with our two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, representing more than 80 percent of all confirmed cased," Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said during a briefing on Tuesday afternoon. Though the briefing slides noted data from Monday, the finding was consistent with updated data on Tuesday. Of 49,025 cases in Canada, 15,381 were reported in Ontario and 24,982 in Quebec.

Tam said confirmed cases have more than doubled since April 9, when the federal government last shared modelling information, and attributed this to increases in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Since then, the proportion of people who have died as a result of COVID-19 has also increased from 2.2 per cent to 5.5 per cent, Tam said. She noted that as of April 26, 2,012 or around 79 per cent of the deaths so far have been linked to long-term care and seniors’ homes.

She also shared forecasting model data — this type of model uses data of the number of cases in the country to estimate how many cases Canada can expect in the coming weeks — which suggested the country could see between 53,196 to 66,835 cases and 3,277 to 3,883 deaths by May 5.

The federal government previously released various scenarios through "dynamic models," which show what the virus' impact could be in the coming months by taking into account things like the number of people an infected person could contact in a day or the percentage of cases that would be identified or isolated.

In the the best-case scenario described as having "stronger epidemic control," where there is a "high degree of physical distancing" and where a high percentage of people with COVID-19 and their contacts are traced and isolated, the previously released models projected between 4,400 and 44,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic. This scenario, where between 1 and 10 per cent of the population could be infected, is the the one Tam expects Canada will fall into. The government maintained the same long-term estimates at its briefing on Tuesday.

Tam said in order for the "epidemic to die out," the country needs to reach a point where each infected person is transmitting the virus to fewer than one person on average; currently the estimate is at just over one person. Before public health restrictions were introduced in March, it was estimated each infected person was passing on the virus to more than two people.

A day after the government was criticized by the opposition for not providing many details in its phased framework to lift public health measures, Ford promised more is on its way.

The premier used his daily press availability to announce that later this week the government will release "clear, sector-specific labour guidelines for how businesses can operate safely in this new reality."

"Having a clear framework, having well-defined labour guidelines, these are critical steps to opening the economy safely."

Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction Prabmeet Sakaria also requested businesses to submit their feedback for how the government can eliminate hurdles during the pandemic. "Particularly, we are looking for temporary rule or regulation changes that would make it easier to assist our health care system in meeting emergency needs."

Ontario's big city mayors are calling on other orders of government to step up to fill the pandemic funding gap.

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, the chair of the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario that represents 29 municipalities and 70 per cent of the province's population, stated that he's hopeful that the provincial government will step up to do what he feels is right.

Municipal Affairs "Minister [Steve] Clark demonstrated that he understands the fiscal challenges municipalities are facing," Guthrie wrote, positioning them on the same page. "He affirmed that all three levels of government need to work hand-in-hand to navigate this crisis together, and LUMCO mayors couldn’t agree more."

But Guthrie said that the 29 mayors are "united" that one option is off the table. "Deficits are not the answer," he said, suggesting that allowing municipalities to temporarily budget for operating deficits is a non-started because their governance and funding structure is not set up to facilitate such spending. "The solution is to deal with these financial problems today and not push fiscal challenges to future years. That’s why we need better tools in the toolbox, such as emergency operating funding, to keep critical services running."

The call from LUMCO follows on from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities last week, as municipalities across the country are concerned about a cash crunch due to the pandemic.

QP Briefing Staff

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