The Ontario government inspected a Toronto long-term care facility by phone instead of physically entering the building to check on the safety of staff and residents affected by COVID-19, CBC News has learned.
The Ministry of Labour, Trade and Skills Development was asked to fully inspect the Ina Grafton Gage Home last month, after receiving numerous complaints from the union representing staff about the alleged lack of infection control, staff shortages and lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, at the facility.
So far, 21 residents at the home have died from COVID-19, and 40 others have been infected, along with 25 staff members, although the facility’s management company says all infection control measures are in place.
The revelations come as the province estimates about a third of Ontario’s long-term care facilities have had COVID-19 outbreaks, killing more than 1,000 residents. About 16 per cent of all cases in the province, or about 3,000, are health-care workers, according to the Ministry of Health.
“To my knowledge, the inspectors do not want to go into the line of fire. They do not want to go into these workplaces that are infected,” said Ricardo McKenzie, director of long-term care for the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], which represents staff at Ina Grafton Gage and 60,000 other health-care workers in Ontario.
“I believe they are scared to go into these workplaces, even though our workers have no choice,” he added.
CBC News has learned the province’s phone inspections of Ina Grafton Gage happened on April 13 and April 23. It’s not known how many of the 21 residents died before the inspections or after.
Inspectors listened to concerns from staff and interviewed the home’s managers remotely before determining no problems existed.
McKenzie suspects the ministry has all but stopped in-person inspections of facilities hit by COVID-19, unless ordered to do so by the courts or the Ontario Labour Relations Board [OLRB].
Ministry spokesperson Janet Deline wouldn’t say if the province has given any specific directives to inspectors to stay out of facilities affected by COVID-19.
“We have measures and procedures in place to ensure the safety of ministry inspectors and the staff and residents in the workplaces if we conduct a visit. Depending on the circumstances, inspectors may respond to complaints in person or by phone,” Deline told CBC News in an emailed statement.
“These measures will also help protect vulnerable populations by reducing contacts and risk of exposure to COVID-19. All our health and safety inspectors are available to investigate and we will conduct field visits at workplaces, including in the health-care sector, where necessary,” she added.
This week, the SEIU applied for an emergency hearing at the OLRB on the situation at Ina Grafton Gage.
The union says it wants the board to force the care home to provide better access to PPE, improve infection control measures and force the province to conduct a full on-site, in-person inspection of the facility.
“It is patently obvious that telephone visits are frankly not working,” wrote the SEIU in its application.
“A true site visit never happened.”
The union is also calling for public inquiries and criminal investigations into COVID-19 related deaths in Ontario long-term care homes.
Phone inspection revealed no issues, home management says
Ina Grafton Gage is a non-profit home managed by a subsidiary of Responsive Group Inc., a private company.
In a written statement to CBC News, the company says the ministry’s inspections revealed no problems at the home.
“This means all infection control measures were found to be firmly in place,” according to Nicola Major, director of communications and initiatives for Responsive Group Inc.
“At no time, before or during this outbreak, have the staff at this not-for-profit home been without the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to provide quality care to their residents,” Major wrote.
The company says it will challenge the union’s demands at the emergency board hearing next week.
Staff believe the outbreak at Ina Grafton Gage started after a sick employee continued to work at the facility.
The facility had an “inadequate response to protecting its employees and residents” from COVID-19,” according to the SEIU application.
“Employees are being pressured to come to work when they are showing symptoms of COVID-19.”
Multiple staff members at Ina Grafton Gage have told CBC News that the facility has not isolated residents with the novel coronavirus from those who are not infected.
Responsive Group Inc. did not respond to questions about that allegation.
Patrick Skerritt, a registered practical nurse at Ina Grafton Gage, wonders if as many residents there would have been infected and died if the government inspectors had checked the facility in person last month.
“I can’t say if it can be prevented. I think it could be reduced, the amount of people who have gotten it and passed away,” he told CBC News.