TORONTO - Major changes are needed in Ontario's long-term care system, the province's patient ombudsman said Thursday as the office made a series of recommendations to deal with a resurgence in COVID-19.
Enhancing whistleblower protections, improving communications and overhauling the visitation system are among the suggestions included in the office's preliminary report.
It also recommends that all health-care providers have “backstops” and contingency plans in place to deal with outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
“What is clear is that we must prevent what happened from happening again,” said Cathy Fooks, who took over the job in mid-July - weeks after the office began a formal investigation into the long-term care system.
That investigation continues, Fooks said, but the office wanted to release an interim report due to the volume of complaints it received.
“So we felt the seriousness of it was such that we shouldn't wait until next year to try to get some of this information public as quickly as we can,” Fooks said in an interview.
“Certainly a number of the stories that we were hearing were really distressing and you know, people just wanted somebody to know what was happening.”
The recommendations are non-binding, but Fooks said she hopes long-term care providers and governments receive the report “in the spirit that it's given” and use it to plan for a second wave.
Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, the province's minister of long-term care, said the government was doing just that.
“We take those recommendations to heart,” Fullerton told reporters Thursday, noting that some whistleblower protections are already included in the province's Long-Term Care Homes Act, while acknowledging they could be more robust.
“We need to make sure that people can come forward with concerns, shortcomings or issues ... because the more these things are hidden, the harder it is to find them and address them.”
Several stakeholder groups applauded the patient ombudsman's recommendations, including the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents hundreds of private and non-profit facilities.
“(The ombudsman's) clear set of recommendations will ensure there is no repeat of the tragedy that unfolded in the first wave of COVID-19 through increased measures to protect against a second wave, many of which are already in place now,” Donna Duncan, the association's CEO, said in a statement.
As of Thursday morning, the province reported 1,954 deaths from COVID-19 among residents of long-term care, and eight deaths among staff.