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COVID-19: One-third of Ontario's long-term care homes experiencing outbreaks

A spokeswoman for Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said enhanced testing efforts have allowed authorities to detect infections before the virus spreads through facilities

A third of Ontario's long-term care homes are reporting COVID-19 outbreaks, marking a new record for the province, as advocates say spread among staff has forced some facilities to seek new sources of support to care for residents. 

According to provincial data, 207 of the 626 long-term care homes in Ontario are currently experiencing outbreaks of the virus, including 19 new ones reported Sunday. 

The CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents nearly 70 per cent of homes in the province, says the rising number of outbreaks is pushing the system to its limits.

"We have to find a way to stem this," Donna Duncan said by phone Sunday. "Where there are extraordinary circumstances, we need to make sure we get out ahead of them so we don't see the type of crises that we saw in the (first wave)." 

A spokeswoman for Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said enhanced testing efforts have allowed authorities to detect infections before the virus spreads through facilities.

While the number of facilities with at least one COVID-19 case may be at an all-time high, the size and nature of those outbreaks has shifted during the second wave, Krystle Caputo said in an email.

On Sunday, the province logged 1,140 COVID-19 cases among long-term care residents and 1,130 infections among staff. More than half of the 207 facilities with outbreaks have no resident cases, Caputo said.

By comparison, she said, at the peak of the first wave on May 18, 2,538 residents and 1,615 staff were infected across 190 facilities. 

An independent commission that's examining the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Ontario's long-term care homes has so far come out with two sets of interim recommendations. 

While older Canadians may be at the highest risk for COVID-19 complications, Duncan said the steady spread of the virus among long-term care workers is compounding critical resource shortages that could jeopardize the health of staff and residents alike.

Moreover, many hospitals are facing their own capacity concerns, Duncan said, so those health-care workers won't be able to offer the same help to long-term care homes that they provided last spring.

Duncan said long-term care homes are working with the province to find alternative forms of backup, including the Canadian Red Cross and student support workers.

"Unfortunately, this virus moves quickly, and we've seen it move through the hospital system as well," Duncan said. "That really does deflect resources from long-term care."

The head of the Ontario Hospital Association has said a number of hospitals are also facing staffing shortages as health-care workers have been redeployed to testing centres, labs and long-term care homes.

Ontario reported 2,964 new COVID-19 cases and 25 more deaths related to the virus Sunday.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said there were 786 new infections in Toronto, 346 in Peel Region, 308 in York Region, 197 in Durham and 187 in Windsor-Essex County.

There are 998 hospitalizations in the province, including 329 intensive care cases, and 228 patients on ventilators.

The province said there's been an average increase of 2,792 new cases per day over the past week, with Ontario setting a single-day record of 3,363 diagnoses on Saturday.

Public health authorities said they processed 49,803 tests since their last update, and 5.6 per cent came back positive.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press