Ontario physicians are calling on the province to provide paid sick days for Personal Support Workers (PSWs) and other long-term care home (LTCH) workers in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario's long-term care homes.
There is also a recommendation that government needs to invest more money to improve internet infrastructure in Northern Ontario with the result of being able to improve virtual care.
These are just a couple of several calls to action by the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) to fight against the forecasts that say more deaths will be occurring in long-term care homes.
The recommendations were provided in a recent teleconference hosted by Ontario Medical Association president Dr. Samantha Hill, who said physicians have been seeing the terrible toll the pandemic is taking on elderly residents in nursing homes.
"Our members, Ontario doctors, have been on the first line of the pandemic since the very beginning," said Hill.
"We've seen first hand the effects on our patients, our colleagues, our hospitals and people in all settings including long-term care," she added.
Hill said the medical community in Ontario has been watching the long-term care situation for several months and she said it was dire and heart-breaking.
"Over Christmas some of our members came forth to help in overwhelmed LTCHs and described conditions and situations that are truly inhumane," said Hill.
"Right now, we all know more needs to be done quickly," said Hill. "What can we do now for the residents, for the families, and for those who are caring for them?"
And while she asked the question, Hill had an answer chambered. She said there are actually five important steps that can be taken immediately by the provincial government to improve the situation in long-term care homes.
Hill said this included the following:
1. Increase efforts to vaccinate all long-term care residents and caregivers, including health workers, personal support workers, other staff and relatives who provide physical and mental health support. Hill said in concert with that, the province should continue COVID-19 testing so that public health officials have better real-time information to prevent or manage outbreaks.
2. Cut the red tape preventing physicians from moving rapidly into long-term care homes with outbreaks or other significant needs. The OMA said this would include better valuation of all LTC employees and caregivers to the point that paid sick days would be provided. This means that personal support workers (PSWs) who might be feeling under the weather would not have to make the choice of going to work to earn money for food and rent or stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. The OMA said this also included the need to speed up training of new PSWs including retraining people who lost jobs in other industries because of COVID.
3. Continue the use of virtual care in long-term homes to prevent the spread of the virus and improve access to specialists, in conjunction with in-person care where appropriate, especially in homes with outbreaks and where patients are in declining health. Virtual care also helps LTC residents receive more timely care and limit unnecessary trips to the hospital or community medical clinics, said the OMA document.
For Northern Ontario and rural areas, this would mean that an additional financial investment would be required by the government to ensure that there is reliable internet infrastructure so that certain residents can get care by cellphone, by tablet or video device.
4. Appoint a chief medical officer for long-term care for each Ontario Health region to ensure the best quality care is being provided; for example, by coordinating efforts between the acute and long-term care sectors, liaising with Public Health and co-ordinating physician coverage over multiple sites.
5. Shift social attitudes so that caring for frail older adults is considered to be one of the most important jobs in the world.
“The situation in our long-term care homes is dire and heartbreaking,” said Dr. Hill. “We appreciate the steps the government has taken and continues to take. But we all know more needs to be done and done quickly.”
The OMA said the five recommendations have been forwarded to the Ontario Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission with the message that instead of waiting for a final report in April as expected, the premier should consider taking action now.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.