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JIM VIBERT: NSGEU's Northwood report offers insight into failures, secrecy

Northwood's Halifax campus.
Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
COVID-19 killed 53 people at Northwood long-term-care facility in Halifax. - Ryan Taplin / File

A report released this week on the COVID-19 outbreak that killed 53 residents at Halifax’s Northwood nursing home is probably as close as Nova Scotians will come to finding out what went so terribly wrong.

The litany of failure exposed by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union in its report titled Neglecting Northwood also offers some insight on why the province’s own examination of the disaster will be hidden from public view.

The NSGEU’s well-documented report suggests the high death toll at the province’s largest nursing home was avoidable.

“The (funding) cuts and neglect left Northwood in a precarious position againsta brewing pandemic. But it was a series of miscalculations and delayed actions by the province in March and April of 2020 that allowed COVID to establish its tragic hold,” the report states.

It says that the province ignored warnings from the NSGEU and other unions of the growing disaster at Northwood. By mid-April, when the government recognized its mistake and sent additional medical staff to the home, it was already too late.

Frustrated by the inaction, the NSGEU went public with its concerns April 22. But rather than heed the warning, Premier Stephen McNeil and Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, shot the messenger.

They accused the NSGEU of fear-mongering and claimed the union’s assertion that the nursing home lacked what it needed to keep its residents safe was, in the premier's words, “false and wrong.”

“Residents likely haven’t had a bath in a week. ... They (are) often wet but do not get changed. ... Garbage cans are overflowing and at one point yesterday, there were no bed pans or fitted sheets available on the unit."

-  Susan Stevens, NSHA's senior director of continuing care, in email 

At the time, eight Northwood residents had died of COVID-19. Another 45 deaths were to follow.

When the additional nursing staff – many NSGEU members – arrived at Northwood, they found conditions they described as chaotic.

The nurses reported a shortage of necessary protective equipment; a lack of basic safety and infection-control protocols; and said that COVID-19-positive and -negative residents intermingled and shared rooms.

One NSGEU member deployed to Northwood told the union that she had “never felt so completely unsafe as a nurse.”

By May, Nova Scotia Health Authority officials were also raising concerns. The health authority's senior director of continuing care, Susan Stevens, wrote to its vice-presidents outlining conditions in Northwood.

“Residents likely haven’t had a bath in a week. ... They (are) often wet but do not get changed. ... Garbage cans are overflowing and at one point yesterday, there were no bed pans or fitted sheets available on the unit,” Stevens’ email stated.

The NSGEU says it and other unions were imploring senior government officials to provide masks for long-term care workers as early as March 17, but those requests were ignored.

“The delayed distribution of masks to long-term care workers in Nova Scotia meant that Northwood staff and residents were without a critical defence during the key weeks the virus was quietly spreading throughout the facility."

The report says none of the failures was the responsibility of Northwood, its staff, residents or their families.

That leaves the provincial government responsible for the abject failure, which offers a hint as to why the government’s review will be kept a secret.

Northwood had been concerned for years that overcrowding left its residents vulnerable to contagious disease.

In three successive years – 2017 to 2019 – it requested capital funding from the McNeil government to add space and provide all residents with single rooms, rather than the doubles and triples they were in.

The province refused those requests. “The $13 million project would have allowed every resident of Northwood to have their own room. The government knew, well in advance of the pandemic, that Northwood believed it had seriousinfection control challenges because of double and triple bunking."

The NSGEU report was originally prepared as a submission to the government’s review. But, because evidence submitted to that review, as well as its findings, will be kept secret – only the recommendations will be made public – the NSGEU decided to release the report and call for a transparent, public investigation into the tragedy.

The government claims its review needs to be confidential to protect those who provide evidence.

"Our goal with the review is to determine what happened at Northwood and address anything that will help avoid or contain future outbreaks of COVID-19," the provincial Health Department told the Chronicle Herald’s Stuart Peddle this week.

The province's goal may be to determine what happened, but it has no intention of sharing that with the people paying for the review – the taxpayers of Nova Scotia.

The findings in the NSGEU report, however, suggest the Liberal government is protecting itself from public knowledge that it failed the residents of Northwood leading up to and during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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