The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner Credit: Halifax Examiner / Tim Bousquet

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The death toll continues to climb at the Northwood nursing home in Halifax. Northwood CEO Janet Simm and Executive Director Josie Ryan held an online briefing today to report three more residents have died, bringing the total to 45 at the 485-bed complex.

Equally discouraging is the fact there continue to be new cases — one today and a total of eight since last Friday — including six residents and two staff.

“The new cases among residents are on floors that are already affected,” said Ryan. “We did have two people in the Manor show up positive but we moved them to the COVID unit where oxygen therapy is available. We are doing their contact tracing — so that is why we are looking at the Smoke Room to see if that is a potential source.”

The Manor is an adjoining apartment building with two separate wings: one for Northwood residents in Assisted Living and a second wing for tenants who come and go independently.

About 80% of the COVID-19 cases at the Northwood complex in Halifax have been in the Centre where the frailest people receive nursing care. Family members of residents and tenants in the Manor have expressed concerns about possible spread, in part because Northwood can’t order tenants of the Manor to wear masks and social distancing is voluntary. Today we learned smoking rooms may be another possible vector.

Said Ryan:

“At the beginning of the pandemic we reduced the number of people who could use the smoking rooms. We have four rooms throughout the facility; three are in the Centre building and it was easier to manage because there aren’t hardly any smokers in that building. The Manor Smoke Room has a larger number of smokers but we had video surveillance and we didn’t have many cases in the Manor. Then this past weekend, we did have a positive case who is a smoker. We closed the Manor Smoke Room and we swabbed all the smokers in The Manor and those tests all came back negative. We will continue to swab smokers throughout the next two weeks.

The 14-day incubation period and the unknowns around this virus have been one of our biggest challenges. You can test negative three times and then on the fourth time, test positive. And you can have no symptoms.

When we identify a case, we go back to every staff who worked on that floor and we do swabbing to see if any come back positive. We will be swabbing residents in the Manor for probably the next six weeks. Even if we have no new cases, we will continue to test in case there are asymptomatic people there.

Lessons learned?

“We have learned from this and will do everything we can to help prevent this from occurring again,” said Simm. “We currently have 78 vacancies which is allowing us to develop private rooms and do the cohorting. We are in conversations with government about what our go-forward plan looks like.”

Simm and Ryan answered the following questions:

Q. Aside from single rooms, what might have prevented this virus from spreading so quickly?

A. Simm: As we have mentioned before, Northwood implemented the masking policy for staff about a week before the province required it. Hindsight is 20-20. Would it have been helpful to have implemented our masks even sooner, would that have been helpful? Possibly.

Q. Will Northwood be investigating how COVID-19 spread?

A. Simm: That work is happening daily with every new case and includes contact tracing. Our executive director Josie Ryan is part of that team. We do understand there will be further reviews — while we are in as well as post-outbreak — and we very open to participate. We all want to do whatever is in our means to prevent this from happening again.”

A. Ryan: We also have the support of Infection Prevention and Control from the NS Health Authority. On site on any given day there are two to four people on the floors doing audits, talking to staff, and working with housekeepers. If there are suggestions, we make sure changes are made right away.”

Q. When and why did Northwood choose to hire the firm National Public Relations?

A. Simm: We have received media attention from across the province and across the world and we wanted to make sure we were transparent and responsive to all of that. It’s not something we deal with on a daily basis so having that support to prepare and having the technology (for these briefings) was the best decision we have made in awhile.

Simm noted that with “fewer” active cases — 165, most of them residents— and more dedicated Northwood staff returning to work, a “managed transition” is underway.  Eighty “recovered” Northwood employees are now back on the job after being tested.

That means dozens of health care professionals “borrowed” from the NS Health Authority, Shannex, Glen Haven Manor, the VON, Dalhousie, and EHS are in the process of standing down and beginning a 14-day period of self-isolation before they can return to work at their own facilities.

Simm offered her sincere thanks and appreciation to close to 100 workers who arrived eight weeks ago to offer their help, at considerable risk to themselves, when Northwood became overwhelmed by the virus.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Really? They hired a PR firm to ensure they were “transparent and responsive”? There’s an oxymoron in there somewhere.

    1. The explanations on early masking keep changing.Dr. Strang first reported that the province was distributing masks at Northwood “a couple of days before the directive.” Now it’s “about a week.” Handiwork of the imported spin doctors?