Fresh hope runs through Shalom Village today—hope that the COVID-19 outbreak that killed 20 residents and sickened hundreds may soon be ending.
Ken Callaghan, who has been CEO of the Macklin Street North campus for barely a month, dares to voice that hope. His evidence includes the fact that the number of infections is falling with fewer than a dozen active cases remaining. In addition, the majority of residents and staff have been vaccinated.
As promising as those factors are, the veteran healthcare leader warns it’s still too early to relax defenses against the deadly virus.
“We’re on the tail end of this outbreak now, but we can’t let our guard down,” he said. “It just takes one slip and it can come back in and then it’s so hard to get over it again.”
For the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shalom Village managed to keep the infection at bay through a complex set of safeguards that tried to wall the home off from the virus. The complex of 81 apartments and 127-bed long-term care facility was closed to all visitors and residents and staff were subjected to twice-daily checks for symptoms. Apartment residents were confined to their units, the dining room was closed and recreational and other programs were cancelled.
When the infection attacked Shalom Village was without a chief administrative officer. To fill the gap until a proper search process was conducted, the board of directors asked Hamilton dentist Larry Levin to step in. With his dental practice shut down by COVID regulations, he agreed and launched an aggressive program aimed at keeping the virus out.
That diligence, however, ultimately wasn’t enough. Through December and January, the virus tore through the complex. By the end of 2020, it had infected 163 people – 72 staff and 91 residents – and killed 19. By Jan. 22, total infections were 209 – 97 staff and 112 residents – and 20 had died. Reports, initially released almost daily but now limited to three times a week, show total infections peaked at 211 on Jan. 20. The last death was recorded Jan. 3.
Callaghan took over the top job Jan. 4, but day-to-day management is being handled by St. Joseph’s Healthcare under a three-month voluntary agreement.
No one knows how the infection got into the home, and it’s a question that may never be fully answered, Callaghan said.
“This is part of a global pandemic and long-term care homes aren’t isolated from that,” said Callaghan, noting as many as one-third of all such facilities in the province have been invaded by this virus. “We are looking into each and every area of the home and doing a deep dive into all of our processes to get a handle on this.”
The ravages of the disease have been especially hard on staff and residents of the tight-knit Shalom Village community. Staff, however, have been bearing a special burden.
“Our staff has been working day and night since the shutdown,” he said. “It has been a really terrible situation for the residents we’ve lost and their families, but it has also been very hard on our staff.”
Workers also have access to counselling and other supports through their employee assistance program.
As the battle drags on residents have been expressing frustration with the lockdown of their home. Measures currently in force keep those in the apartment complex from leaving their units to use the communal showers or even to stroll around their floors. Those who rely on the help of essential care workers for daily activities are being denied that aid.
Levin has promised “The minute we can let helpers back in, we will absolutely do that.”
Callaghan has said those restrictions remain necessary because every time a resident does go out, their unit requires deep cleaning. The lockdown won’t be lifted, he added, until 14 days after the last active case has been identified at the Macklin Street North complex.
The final ruling will be up to the city’s public health department.
Hopes of eventually defeating the outbreak hang now on getting staff and residents vaccinated. The first shots were issued in mid-January. To date, almost 90 per cent of residents and 70 per cent of staff have been inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine. Second injections, and the first for those too sick to be treated earlier, are set for Feb. 2, if vaccine is available.
Shipment of the vaccine to Canada has been slowed by production delays from Pfizer. The provincial government has said it will deal with that shortage by giving the frailest residents of nursing and long-term care homes first chance at second shots while having healthier people wait.
In addition to its other problems, the virus has also created some significant financial worries for the non-profit facility.
“Our budget is struggling, as is the budget of any other long-term care facility,” Levin said. “This makes our financial picture a very difficult one on a number of different levels.”
Levin explained that under the current model, homes such as Shalom Village are funded through rents charged for the apartment units, provincial per diem amounts for nursing home care and food and the fundraising efforts of its supporters. COVID-19, however, has both raised costs and sliced into revenue because, while long-term care beds are full, some apartments are going vacant.
“The long-term care units are always pretty full, but some of the apartments are vacant because we can’t show them to potential residents,” he said. “That loss of rental income is just another factor we have to face in dealing with COVID.”
To meet that challenge in the short term, a special fundraising appeal has been launched through the Shalom Village website. The longer term fix, Levin said, will require the provincial government to change a model that has left the long term care sector chronically underfunded.
The province has promised a commission to look into the long-term care home system and Levin said Shalom Village’s leaders will be involved in that effort.
“We will contribute to that because we want to make sure that the government understands how years of underfunding have helped to create problems that are apparent during this crisis,” he said. “Not everything is the fault of government, but a good part of it is. We want to make sure government understands this and makes the necessary changes so we have a higher level of care in our system.”
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