Nearly one year ago, as the first detailed picture emerged of the true scale of the horror faced by residents of Ontario’s long-term care system during the pandemic, a visibly emotional Premier Doug Ford vowed: “There’s going to be justice.”
Patients with ulcers with soiled sheets left bed-bound as COVID-19 tore through homes, dehydration, cockroaches and staff moving unit to unit in contaminated gear — those were just some of the unsettling images contained in a Canadian Armed Forces report into five of the province’s long-term care facilities. The findings prompted widespread public outcry.
In the face of it all, the premier vowed a full investigation, with the details to be turned over to police who could lay criminal charges if warranted.
“The government has already begun an active investigation,” the province said in a news release last May.
Now, it turns out, that didn’t happen.
During a news conference Wednesday, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told reporters, in response to question by a QP Briefing reporter: “Investigations would not happen at a provincial level or a ministry level.”
“They would be the purview and the responsibility of either the local police departments or in some cases, they would refer it to another division, another police operation.”
WATCH | Solicitor General Sylvia Jones responds to questions about a long-term care investigation:
In its news release announcing an investigation last year, the province said one death had been referred to Office of the Chief Coroner for investigation. “Specific critical incidents” in the report were referred to the Ministry of Long-Term Care’s inspections branch.
In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson for Jones said it was the deputy solicitor general who provided the report to the coroner’s office.
“Should there be any criminal concerns during a death investigation, the coroner would bring them to the attention of the police. The Office of the Chief Coroner does not have the authority to lay criminal charges,” said spokeperson Stephen Warner.
‘They died when all they need was water and a wipe down’
In a letter to Ontario Provincial Police Commisisoner Thomas Carrique Thursday, Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath called on the police force to “evaluate” whether instances of lack of water and personal care documented by armed forces and the Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission “constitute a case for criminal charges.”
“As I read of 26 seniors perishing not from COVID-19 but from a lack of water and personal care, my heart broke. I thought we had heard the worst of things, but I was wrong,” the NDP’s Horwath wrote. “I entrust your force to make a thorough evaluation, and to lay charges where necessary,” she said.
The commission, which unveiled its final 322-page report Friday night, said that by the time the armed forces arrived at the homes identified as most in need of attention, “they found deplorable conditions.”
“It was noted by ACCT [augmented civilian care team] that 26 residents died due to dehydration prior to the arrival of the CAF team due to the lack of staff to care for them,” the report quotes one member as saying.
“They died when all they need was ‘water and a wipe down.'”
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OPP not currently investigating
But as of Thursday, OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson told CBC News he wasn’t aware of any ongoing investigations into deaths at nursing homes in the province related to COVID-19.
Durham Regional Police Services spokesperson George Tudos confirmed an investigation is happening in that region but declined a request for an interview.
“We are reviewing the details of the Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-9 Commission report released on April 30, 2021 and this remains an ongoing investigation. We don’t have anything further to add at this point,” he said.
The commission concluded Ontario had no plan to protect long-term care residents amid the pandemic, citing chronic underfunding, staffing shortages and poor oversight.
The commissioners also said Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, in particular, was too slow to act on emerging information about COVID-19.
Workers in the long-term care sector were described making personal protective equipment out of “pop bottles and plastic bags” because regular masks were in such short supply.
Earlier Friday, Ford said he welcomed the commission’s report, as difficult as it would be to read.
“What happened in our long-term care homes, it was tragic,” he said. “And it was terrible. But most of all, it can never be allowed to happen again.”
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