Ottawa’s long-term care homes saw high death rates in early months of pandemic, according to city overview

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One out of every three residents of city long-term care homes who contracted COVID-19 during the difficult first few months of the pandemic died, according to an overview provided to Mayor Jim Watson and members of council Monday.

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Donna Gray, the city’s general manager of community and social services, called the pandemic “the most difficult challenge faced by the long-term care sector in many years” in the overview that was done at the request of the community and protective services committee.

The number of residents infected with COVID-19 in the city’s four long-term care homes during the first three months of the pandemic was relatively low compared to some other homes in Ottawa and across the province. But the death rate was not.

In the four homes run by the City of Ottawa, with a total of 717 beds, 24 residents became infected between March 2020 and July 2020. Eight of those residents died, a 33 per cent mortality rate.

In addition, 30 staff members became infected and one died during the early period of the pandemic before vaccines were available.

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The long-term care sector was among the hardest hit in the province — especially during the early months of the pandemic. The province appointed a long-term care commission to study the impact of the pandemic in long-term care homes and recommend changes.

Gray cited the rapid spread of the virus, isolation of residents, difficulty obtaining personal protective equipment and rapidly changing Ministry of Long-Term Care guidelines as being among the challenges of the pandemic, especially during the first months. Later, vaccine hesitancy among staff and the mental health of residents and staff were also cited as challenges.

Among other efforts, the city’s long-term care services restricted staff movement between homes before the province made it mandatory, redeployed recreational and cultural staff to help out and made close contact with the city’s emergency operations centre to make sure homes had an adequate supply of masks, gloves and other equipment.

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Despite challenges, Gray said the homes were largely able to maintain regular operations.

COVID-19 infection and death rates varied among long-term care residents during the middle and most recent periods of the pandemic. Between August 2020 and July 2021, 18 residents of city-run homes became infected with COVID-19, two of whom died. Ninety-three staff members also became infected.

Since August of 2021, 94 residents have contracted COVID-19 and four residents have died. During the same period, 349 staff members became infected, none of whom died.

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Long-term care residents and staff were among the first in the province to receive COVID-19 vaccines, beginning in December 2020.

Those vaccines, different strains of COVID-19, improved infection prevention and control, and better management of outbreaks all contributed to fewer serious outcomes and deaths among long-term care residents as the pandemic progressed. But outbreaks continue.

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From the beginning, said Gray, the city’s long-term care services followed all provincial guidance and worked closely with Ottawa Public Health, including monthly meetings with OPH and the homes’ pandemic management teams to ensure they were consistently following guidance and to answer questions.

During a period when family and caregivers were unable to enter homes under provincial guidelines, the city redeployed other staff as helpers to spend one-on-one time with residents and facilitate communication with their families.

Among lessons learned during the pandemic, according to the overview, was the “critical role” that designated caregivers — often family members — have in the health and wellbeing of residents.

During the most recent period of the pandemic, the city again redeployed recreation, cultural and facilities staff for resident assistance and screening.

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