Halifax nursing home sees biggest single-day jump in COVID-19 recoveries

The Northwood nursing home in Halifax is reporting its single largest number of recoveries in one day since the COVID-19 outbreak started. 

CEO Janet Simm said Wednesday that an additional 48 residents have recovered and potentially 30 more could recover by the end of the week, but she said it will be “quite some time” before she can declare the outbreak over at the facility.

To date, 74 Northwood residents have recovered from COVID-19.

The Halifax long-term care home is the epicentre of the outbreak in Nova Scotia, with 316 cases reported, 226 of them belonging to residents.

As well, 35 of the 41 deaths from COVID-19 in Nova Scotia were Northwood residents.

“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of loved ones,” Simm said.

“We share in your pain and we’re deeply saddened by your loss. All of these deaths have hit hard.”

Simm said those recovering are now moving into an in-house recovery unit, as opposed to an off-site location. 

More single-patient rooms coming

Work is also underway to create as many single-patient rooms as possible.

As people move into the COVID-19 unit or die, Northwood is using that additional capacity to make private rooms.

But Simm said it’s too soon to say whether single-patient rooms will become standard practice going forward.

“We have put proposals forward, but at this point in time, all of our focus and all of our efforts are going toward responding to what’s in front of us,” she said.

Simm said moving to some kind of permanent single-patient room model would require more provincial funding.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil at a COVID-19 press briefing on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Communications Nova Scotia)

 

Premier Stephen McNeil said it’s on his radar, but made no immediate commitment.

“When this is over, we’ll certainly be looking at what that footprint looks like. And is there something that can be done to continue to improve the facilities that care for our family members?” McNeil said during a press briefing on Wednesday. 

Simm said exceptions can be made for those who want to share a room, such as married couples or residents who simply wish to live together.

One of the biggest challenges facing Northwood is staffing.

“We have more than 100 staff who remain off work due to a variety of reasons and we are still relying heavily on the support of other organizations to maintain our staffing levels,” Simm said.

When asked why Northwood or the province didn’t respond to an offer from the Canadian Armed Forces for extra health-care staff, Simm said she was satisfied with existing support and redeployments from within the provincial health-care system.

“That was not deemed necessary,” she added.

Union concerned about staffing levels

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said staffing levels at Northwood have long been a major concern of hers.

She said the union has been calling for a staff review at Northwood for years and published a report called Broken Homes in late 2015 that contained recommendations on how to improve long-term care.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, says staffing levels at Northwood have long been a major concern of hers. (Robert Short/CBC)

“We believe when we get through this pandemic, Nova Scotians and Canadians need to review the pandemic as it relates to long-term care,” Hazelton said.

“We see now that having multiple residents in a room is problematic. We need to have a systematic and thoughtful approach forward once we are through this.”

Public inquiry call

On Tuesday, the Nova Scotia Government and General and Employees Union (NSGEU) called for a public inquiry into the fatalities.

Linda MacNeil, Atlantic regional director of Unifor, said there will be a meeting of the health-care unions on Thursday. She said the call for a public inquiry will likely be a topic of discussion.

“To hear the cry publicly for a public inquiry, yeah, it did take me aback a little bit. I’ll say that,” she said.

Simm said Northwood welcomes the scrutiny. 

“We’re very open to that kind of review,” she said. “One of our values is we can always do better, and we want to make sure that Northwood learns and the entire world learns from our experience so that we can prevent this from happening in the future.”

Impossible to prevent some breaches

Northwood has been able trace the infection at the nursing home back to asymptomatic staffers.

Josie Ryan, executive director of long-term care at Northwood, said it’s impossible to prevent some breaches. 

“Just touching your face can be a breach and it’s sometimes challenging to make sure the staff don’t touch their face during a whole shift or rub their eye,” she said.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang at the May 6, 2020, COVID-19 briefing. (CBC)

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said no one should blame the staff at Northwood.

“It could have been that there were breakdowns in infection control or their own use of personal protective equipment,” Strang said.

“I do not at all say that in a blaming way. But before we jump to conclusions, we need to understand where the likely source of exposure was.”

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