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Nursing home staff, health unit working to keep deadly virus out

'What disturbs me and concerns me is the likelihood of having a severe outcome, the likelihood of having deaths,' said Dr. Charles Gardner, region's top doc

Nine residents have died of COVID-19 in one Bobcaygeon nursing home this week, and the news has devastated not only the region’s lead health official, but local nursing home staff as well.

“I get choked up when I start thinking about it,” said Bay Haven’s administrator, Scott Strandholt. “Families have entrusted us to keep their residents safe, and we’re doing everything we possibly can.”

But the respiratory virus has already proved extremely dangerous for elderly people, with or without pre-existing conditions.

“It’s deadly,” said Strandholt. “That’s why we have so many precautions at this point. We’re trying to be prepared, we’re trying to respond quickly and isolate any potential cases of COVID-19. That’s the key.”

While the nursing home staff are practising physical distancing where possible, their jobs are hands-on. There are also some residents without the cognitive capacity to comply with directives such as covering a cough or keeping two metres away from others.

The death toll among seniors worldwide and the natural fragility of many nursing home residents is also worrisome for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner.

“What disturbs me and concerns me is the likelihood of having a severe outcome, the likelihood of having deaths,” said Gardner during a media briefing today. “These are very vulnerable people together in large numbers in an environment in which, if we’re not extremely careful, [the virus] can spread rapidly and can result in a large number of deaths.”

Gardner said the health unit hasn’t confirmed any cases of COVID-19 in the Simcoe-Muskoka region, but he also couldn’t rule it out.

“We typically have a number of outbreaks at this time from a range of organisms, ranging from influenza to other flus and colds,” said Gardner, adding there are outbreaks of that nature at long-term care facilities in the region. “Some of them, we’re not sure what the causal organism is. We are monitoring it very closely.”

At Bay Haven, any resident who has been to the hospital must be isolated for three to five days and will be monitored for any symptoms of the virus.

Strandholt said he’s been working with the medical director Dr. Sohail Ghandi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, to develop protocols for isolation and any COVID-19 emergencies. Gardner also said the public health unit is closely monitoring the region’s long-term care homes and working with them to put safety protocols in place to limit the virus’ spread.

“There’s lots of information out there and so we are deciphering all of that,” said Strandholt. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose right now, the information that’s coming out.”

Strandholt has been the administrator at Bay Haven for four years, and has spent his career in nursing homes and long-term care. He said he doesn’t recall a virus as dangerous as COVID-19.

“The management team and our nurses and frontline people are apprehensive and they’re scared, and they’re looking for answers,” said “We are grateful they’re showing up for work. They’re going to be the unsung heroes of this pandemic.”

The Ontario government announced today it has added another $10 million to its fiscal response to COVID-19 to help seniors self-isolate. A press release from the province suggests the funds could be used to subsidize grocery, meal, and medication delivery to seniors living at home. The province has also promised $20 million over two years for greater protections for seniors in retirement homes, and $243 million for long-term care homes to support 24/7 screening, additional staffing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation, and added surge capacity.

"We must do everything in our power to care for and support Ontario's most vulnerable population," said Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care. "I want to assure you that we are working around the clock to assist and care for Ontario's seniors, especially those in long-term care, during this unprecedented time."