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Impact of coronavirus on nursing homes 'more severe' than expected: Trudeau

Last Updated Apr 17, 2020 at 5:39 am EST

The Seven Oaks Long-Term Care Home is shown in Toronto on Thursday, April 2, 2020. A number of residents at the home have died from COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The sweep of coronavirus throughout Canada’s nursing homes is proving more devastating than expected, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday as he warned that reopening the economy too early would be “absolutely disastrous.”

With the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Canada nearing 1,200 – and seniors by far the hardest-hit group – the prime minister said Ottawa would discuss additional supports for provinces in tackling outbreaks in long-term care homes, including a request by Quebec for military relief.

“I think one of the things we’ve seen over the past number of weeks is a far more severe impact on a number of seniors’ residences and long-term care centres than we had certainly hoped for, or more than we feared,” Trudeau said.

“It is impossible to imagine the anguish families and indeed our elders are going through in this situation – there is just so much fear, so much uncertainty,” he said.

“We need to do a better job of being there for them. The federal government is looking at ways to support the provinces, as they deal with this issue.”

While the overall curve of new confirmed COVID-19 cases is “bending,” the proportion of outbreaks in long-term care homes has led to a higher death rate than expected, Canada’s top doctor said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said more than 90 per cent of the patients confirmed to have died from the virus are over the age of 60, and half of them lived in long-term care homes.

However, seniors are not the only vulnerable group, she said, noting more must be done to help people experiencing homelessness and precarious housing – conditions that also make it difficult to maintain physical distancing and hand-washing protocols.

“Without immediate action there will be more outbreaks and avoidable deaths with broader societal and public health implications… We cannot crush this curve unless and until everyone is looked after,” she said.

There are more than 29,900 presumptive and confirmed cases of the virus across Canada, including 1,191 deaths and 9,671 resolved cases. Tam said models are now predicting 1,200 and 1,620 deaths by April 21.

While some provinces, including New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, reported no new cases Thursday, the numbers continued to rise by the hundreds in the two provinces hardest hit by the virus.

Quebec recorded 997 new cases, for a total of 15,857, including 143 new deaths. So far, 630 people have died from the disease in the province.

Premier Francois Legault said most of the newly recorded deaths had not occurred over the last day but were added following a change in data collection methods.

Some 2,000 doctors reponded to Legault’s call for assistance in the province’s overburdened long-term care homes, he said, but the federal government said the province has also formally requested military support.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a big challenge to have everyone work together, people who are not used to working together,” Legault said of the new dynamic, but he invited everyone to “put a little bit of water in our wine.”

“It will not necessarily be easy, especially in conditions that are really exceptional. But, I am convinced that with good faith … we will be able to have these people work together.”

The prime minister said the two governments are trying to sort out a response, which could involve the Canadian Red Cross, the military or volunteers.

While the Canadian Armed Forces do have doctors, the military is normally sent to help during natural disasters and other such crises rather than medical crises, Trudeau said, but he noted the pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge.

In Ontario, where 514 new cases and 38 more deaths were reported Thursday, Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn’t hesitate to make a similar request if the situation called for it.

“Everything’s on the table,” Ford said.