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A journey to the heart of a COVID-19-infected long-term care home in Canada

Almost every afternoon, Céline Lapointe comes to the parking lot at Henriette-Céré, a government-run long-term care home near Montreal, Canada.

She looks up to a third-floor window and waves to her 96-year-old mother. “Her phone is not working, we cannot talk,” she says.

Her mother tested positive for COVID-19 one week ago. Céline Lapointe has not received much news from the care facility. “I guess it’s because everything is fine,” she says with a look of concern.

Her mother asks her to come up. “I can’t come,” she shouts back.

But that is not entirely true. Caregivers like Lapointe are allowed to enter to see their loved ones once granted permission, which she was a week ago. But she is too afraid – many residents at Henriette-Céré have tested positive.

“I’m too scared to catch the virus. I prefer to wait,” she says.

Almost every door in the facility has a small red poster warning, “RED ZONE.” By the end of May, 85 per cent of residents had contracted the virus and 80 per cent of regular staff was absent because they either tested positive or quit.

While we talk, two men wearing white suits and face shields, covering them from head to toe, come out. They are mortuary workers who have come to pick up another body. 

Céline hides her anxiety and says some greeting as they put the stretcher into their van. 

“Why are you putting me in jail?”

I started working at Henriette-Céré because of the provincial government’s need to fill the massive staff shortages in the health system during the coronavirus crisis. 

I now see these men, in their astronaut suits, almost every day that I work. They walk in and everyone stops to watch them pick up the pandemic’s next victim. Out of the care homes’ 105 residents, 31 had died by the end of May.

My colleagues and I take the time to talk with residents and keep them company. Most days we are the only human contact they have.

Sometimes residents – bored, restless, and confined to their rooms – get angry and yell at us. Small doors to prevent them from going out and possibly spreading the virus have been installed.  

“Why are you putting me in jail?” one older woman often asks me. I know she is right but everytime I justify it by saying it is to prevent her from wandering and infecting people.

In March, outside visitors were banned from all long-term care homes and hospitals in Quebec, the worst-hit province in Canada. The region recorded 60 per cent of the country’s coronavirus deaths at the end of May.  

Zone red for positive COVID-19 patients. Image: Anne-Marie Provost/Reset

“Asymptomatic workers infected residents, sadly,” says Jean Mercier, president of the union representing 4,200 employees in the region. “The first cases appeared three weeks after they banned visitors.”

There’s COVID-19, and there’s loneliness

A resident at the care home. Image: Anne-Marie Provost/Reset

Lonely residents idle their days away. Some lie in their beds or sit in chairs staring at nothing all day. Others watch TV or listen to the radio. Céline Lapointe’s mother often does puzzles, sometimes falling asleep with her head on the desk in front of a window.

Thérèse Gendron, who has been living in the care home for seven years, explains that all activities have been cancelled in the last two months. “Time is very, very long,” she says. 

Her last full bath was in March because of the excessive time required to disinfect the room after every use and the potential contamination when getting to the bathrooms.

Sometimes, residents are able to speak with loved ones via FaceTime on an iPad wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. But it is not the same.

“It’s half-working. It’s more complicated for people who don’t have their full cognitive capacity,” points out Mélanie Perroux, spokesperson at the Quebec Caregivers Network, which represents 22,000 caregivers across the province.

Since 11 May, it is easier to enter seniors’ residences. Each facility has its own protocols. “Some facilities are very restrictive. Caregivers cannot do what they were doing before,” says Mélanie Perroux. “In some cases, we are allowed to come inside only 30 minutes a week.”

Other facilities are more organized. Even visitors that are not caregivers can access a visiting room with plexiglass installed to separate everyone.

Caregivers should be tested before entering care homes

At Henriette-Céré around ten caregivers are allowed in without restrictions, says Isabelle Caron, administrator in charge. Training is mandatory on how to wear personal protective equipment properly. 

Hallway at the care home. Image: Anne-Marie Provost/Reset

Medical gowns and face protections are provided by the care home and must be worn all the time.

However, demands for mandatory tests are emerging. The government is not compelling family members to get tested before visiting. 

“I’m afraid they may bring COVID-19 inside,” says Jean Mercier. “They need to be tested. That is nonsense. I don’t understand the government position.”

Caregivers also think they should get tested. “Since the beginning, we should have allowed caregivers to keep coming in by testing them and attributing them time slots,” says Mélanie Perroux.

She hopes caregivers will continue being allowed inside if a second wave of the infections hits. “It is distressing,” she says, “caregivers provide emotional, affective support.” 

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