Two long-term care workers have died of COVID-19 in the past week in Ontario as calls grow for military intervention and accelerated vaccination of residents and staff.
Maureen Ambersley, a registered practical nurse of 16 years and union steward with SEIU Healthcare, died at 57. She worked at a Mississauga, Ont. nursing home owned by the long-term care home operator Extendicare.
“Maureen represented everything good about what it means to serve your community,” union president Sharleen Stewart said in a Jan. 6 news release.
To mark her last birthday, the health-care worker asked friends to donate to the SickKids Hospital Foundation. She had two children.
Ambersley is the fourth member of SEIU to die of COVID-19, Stewart said, adding all have been women of colour.
“It must be said that the death of health-care workers is preventable and the result of ongoing policy failures,” Stewart said.
WATCH: Long-term care residents, health-care workers among first to be vaccinated in Canada. Story continues below.
“As Ontario families bury more workers and residents in long-term care, we reiterate our demand of the provincial government for a new action plan to get us through this out-of-control crisis.”
At least nine health-care workers employed in long-term care have died of COVID-19, according to provincial data.
Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said she gives her “deepest sympathies” to Ambersley’s family, friends and colleagues and is grateful for the dedication of front-line workers during the second wave.
Sheila Yakovishin, a 60-year-old personal support worker who worked at a Windsor, Ont. long-term care home, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 31, according to Unifor, the union that represented her. For 30 years, she had worked at Berkshire Care Centre, which the union said is experiencing a “severe” outbreak.
Premier Doug Ford said his “prayers and thoughts go out to the families of the two health-care workers.”
Meanwhile, the provincial NDP, families and advocates are calling for the province to move more quickly to vaccinate long-term care residents and staff — and for the military to be called back in.
The pandemic’s second wave is sweeping the province’s long-term care homes, with one in three of Ontario’s 626 homes experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. More than 2,800 residents have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic, provincial data shows.
Ontario has pledged to vaccinate all residents and workers in four priority regions — Toronto, Peel, York and Windsor-Essex — by Jan. 21.
But those regions only account for a quarter of the province’s homes, long-term care expert and advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos said at a Wednesday press conference.
She pointed to Niagara, which has 25 outbreaks in retirement and long-term care homes.
The region’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said on Twitter it is “deeply disappointing” Niagara was not identified as a priority to receive the vaccine.
MPP Sam Oosterhoff, who represents the riding of Niagara West, tweeted that his constituents will receive vaccines next week, with a focus on vaccinating health-care workers and long-term care residents.
“At this rate, we’re not only going to, you know, meet the death rate of our first wave — we are going to far surpass it,” Stamatopoulos said. “So this government needs to step it up and they need to step it up now.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath represents the riding of Hamilton Centre, where there are outbreaks in several care homes. She said there’s “no logic” to the province’s decision to exclude Hamilton from the accelerated vaccination plan.
“We have to show some urgency ...”
“We have to pick up the pace. We have to show some urgency and Doug Ford needs to take the bull by the horns here and get things moving,” she said.
Ontario recently announced it would give an additional $398 million to long-term care homes for improving infection prevention and containment, bringing its total funding to the sector during the pandemic to $1.38 billion.
Gloria Yip, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Long-Term Care, said as more vaccines arrive the province will expand to more vaccination sites. Ontario is also adding more staffing capacity to prepare to expand the vaccine rollout to more sites, she said.
Horwath called for the Canadian Armed Forces to return to Ontario long-term care homes, a measure provincial Liberal leader Steven Del Duca has also advocated for.
“There is no excuse for not pulling those resources in to save lives in long-term care, and we’ve been calling for that, frankly, for a very long time,” she said.
“But I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there’s also the other side of the coin, which is the vaccinations that will also save lives, that continue to be laggard and the government continues to have such a poor response there.”
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said more than 26,000 vaccines have been given to health-care workers in long-term care and retirement homes, and nearly 1,000 residents have been vaccinated.
Ford said the province is using all the vaccines it has.
“Everyone will be vaccinated in long term care, not only the patients, but the workers as well, we’ll be moving into other regions across Ontario and get the patients and workers vaccinated immediately,” he said. “So we aren’t delaying. As soon as we have it, we’re going to have people vaccinated.”
As outbreaks continue to spread, Ontario’s independent long-term care commission — struck to investigate the spread of COVID-19 in the province’s care homes — said it has encountered “significant delays” in getting information from the government.
“Most documents responsive to the Commission’s document summonses and requests remain outstanding,” commissioners wrote in a letter dated Dec. 9, adding they need more information about what was done to “prevent, isolate and contain” the spread of the virus in nursing homes.
The commission was tasked with producing a report by April 30. In their letter, commissioners asked for an extension until December 2021 — a request denied by Minister Fullerton, who instead asked the commissioners to meet the April 30 deadline.
The minister said she has asked staff to continue to work with the commission to ensure it receives documents “in as timely a manner as possible.”
This story has been updated with comments from spokespersons for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Ministry of Long-Term Care.