BY IAN PATTISON

The brutal realities of the coronavirus pandemic began to hit home in Thunder Bay this week. Cases jumped to 51 including two people in serious condition in intensive care. A hospital worker and a grocery store employee tested positive and more than 100 hospital staff who were either exposed to the virus or fit screening criteria were off work.

Isolation rules have kept us cooped up for a month now. Those anxious for certainty filled appointments for health unit drive-through testing this weekend in less than 24 hours.

We’re all homesick for our normal lives -- ‘normal’ now seems highly desirable. As winter slowly lets go and the sun’s warmth periodically draws us, blinking, to the outdoors, there is danger afoot.

Do … not … let … up.

For it is only by strict adherence to the rules of isolation and cleanliness that we have half a chance of keeping COVID-19 cases down to manageable numbers around here.

This thing is insidious. It creeps along undetected, then springs up to grab unsuspecting people literally by the throat where the virus lodges before making its way into the lungs.

Isolated hospital patients are lonely and terrified. Their only human contact is with personnel clad head to toe in protective garb.

Nursing homes are where the coronavirus does its dirtiest work. One thing that’s come clear is our shoddy treatment of the elderly. We knew from the outset that older Canadians were more vulnerable to any virus. And yet nearly half of the COVID-19-related deaths in Canada are caused by outbreaks at seniors’ homes, especially in Quebec and Ontario.

Multiple deaths of unfed, dehydrated residents lying in soiled beds at a Quebec nursing home this week shocked Canadians who learned that overworked staff who could not keep up with the raging infections simply walked out rather than face the certainty of infections themselves.

It turns out that these homes cannot hire enough staff at the best of times, largely because pay for the workload involved is just not worth it. That nursing homes in Quebec charge from $3,000 to $10,000 a month came as a shock to Premier François Legault who said they can afford to pay their staff better and promised to address the issue.

In Ontario, many people who need 24-hour personal care go to long-term care, often called nursing homes -- some public, some privately-owned -- where the cost of care is covered by the government. The cost of accommodation itself falls to the patient and varies depending on type and level of care. The maximum monthly fee ranges from $1,800 to $2,600 (2018 figures). Retirement homes with or without medical care can cost much more.

Support staff in nursing homes and hospitals had been advocating for better pay and more resources long before this pandemic. Cuts to health care in Ontario over the years have left all health-care institutions short.

As the CBC reported Tuesday, the Ford government quietly stopped detailed inspections of nursing homes in the past year. Now it is scrambling. The largely for-profit homes successfully lobbied hard for deregulation, a reduction in standards and inspections.

The chair of Chartwell, one of Ontario’s largest senior home operators (with four facilities in Thunder Bay), is former Conservative premier Mike Harris whose own inspection reductions were later reinstated after multiple incidents. But homes are still given advance notice which defeats the very purpose of inspections.

The Ontario Health Care Coalition had this to say in 2012: “The Harris government opened the system to for-profit bidders and today chain for-profit companies have gained the majority of the ‘market share’ as they call it. Home care has been reorganized to facilitate the bidding — care workers have less time to spend with their clients, and their work is the most precarious and underpaid in the health system.”

Health Minister and Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu felt compelled this week to comment on the situation in nursing homes: “We tend to value (read pay) people who care for our vehicles more than people who care for people.”

Long-term care employees, largely part-time without benefits, are paid so poorly that many are forced to work in more than one home to pay the bills. Yet this week, Ontario forbade them that option to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

Ontario also ordered plans for hospital staff to go to nursing homes when outbreaks occur to ensure proper care is provided. Yet hospitals themselves, already struggling to handle basic health care, can hardly afford to part with employees.

Thunder Bay Regional hospital provides the perfect worst-case scenario. Short of personal protective equipment which is reserved for treating active COVID-19 cases, staff who treat presumptive cases are forced home to self-isolate until patient test results are received.

Most tests still have to be sent to labs in southern Ontario and results take four to six days to be returned. Despite wide public isolation it is only by sheer luck that a large outbreak has not occurred locally. But it seems only a matter of time before the situation could overwhelm this hospital’s ability to handle multiple active cases, and many more presumptive cases awaiting test results, with a depleted staff. Imagine if a nursing home outbreak forced the hospital to follow new provincial orders to dispatch staff to help.

Meanwhile, dangerous divisions are being fueled by frustration at the highest levels. Alberta Premier Jason Kenny criticized Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam by name Monday, over her early statements on the progress of this brand new pandemic, accusing her of repeating messages presented by China.

U.S. President Donald Trump continually blames China for the virus spreading, though as recently as last month he was praising Beijing’s actions on control. Lately, Trump has switched targets, blaming the World Health Organization for defending China’s early position. On Monday, he cut off U.S. funding to the WHO which was promptly treated to a major global fundraising effort by music superstars on TV and online Saturday.

Trump is also fond of blaming states for their handling of the crisis and on Friday encouraged resistance against three Democratic governors’ lockdowns, condoning right-wing protesters’ calls to “liberate” their states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been found to be running a coronavirus disinformation campaign out of the Kremlin designed to sow fear and confusion in the West. The surge in groundless conspiracy theories online suggest he is succeeding.

We’ve all got enough to handle without bad actors doing their damndest to make things worse.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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