The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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The CEO of Northwood says the Halifax long-term care facility is entering a recovery period.

COVID-19 swept through the nursing home, infecting 345 residents and staff. Fifty-three people died.

As of this past week, Northwood now has no active cases. Two dozen elderly residents who had recovered from the disease were moved to a local hotel; they will be returning to Northwood Centre and Northwood Manor, said CEO Janet Simm during a briefing yesterday. These two buildings were built in the 1960s to house 485 residents. Both public health officials and Northwood managers have blamed double-bunking in small rooms for the speed with which the virus spread.

“We are continuing our effort to provide residents with private rooms,” said Simm. Prior to the pandemic, Northwood had 216 residents sharing double rooms and 270 people living in single or private rooms in Northwood Centre and Northwood Manor, she said. Today there are about 60 residents still housed in double rooms and sharing a bathroom.

“Currently we do not have enough vacancies to create all private rooms, however we have been working with residents and families in our re-settling plan,” said Simm. “As vacancies occur, we will continue to create private rooms. We are in active discussions with the Department of Health and Wellness regarding future planning for our Halifax campus buildings.”

About a dozen rooms will continue to be shared by couples or roommates who want to stay together.

When asked, Simm did not reveal any details about what type of changes are being discussed other than to say “several options. For the past three years, the non-profit corporation’s Board of Governors had submitted a proposal asking for $13 million to add a couple of storeys to create more private rooms. Premier Stephen McNeil has indicated he has reservations about increasing the footprint of the region’s largest nursing home, so it’s not clear what type of configuration could result from these negotiations between Northwood and the province.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of one deceased Northwood resident diagnosed with COVID-19 after being moved from a single to a double room. An employee of Wagners’ law firm, which initiated the court proceeding, says it has received inquiries from 20 other families. During the briefing, Northwood was asked what it intends to do to prevent a repeat of the tragedy if a second wave of the virus emerges.

“We know so much more now about the virus,” said Josie Ryan, Northwood’s executive-director of long-term care. “We have also been able to create more private rooms. We are focussing on the lessons learned. We will be doing infection control education all summer. Our screening of staff and residents will continue. Practices that have been put in place will continue. Now that we have universal masking, that will make a difference because if there are people coming in, that does protect residents against spread and that should help prevent a second wave.”

Starting Monday, for the first time in three months, Northwood’s Halifax campus will be offering scheduled, family outdoor visits in accordance with Public Health guidelines. A maximum of two visitors, who must wear masks, can sit in an outdoor courtyard area to visit their loved one. Visitors’ temperatures will be taken and their hands and cellphones will be sanitized. Physical distancing of two meters must be maintained (no hugs).

Northwood says these scheduled, 30-minute visits in the open air will be limited to three families at once. Simm asked families for their patience as staff begin coordinating these visits, which will continue seven days a week. June 15 marks the first time all nursing homes and residential care facilities will be receiving visitors since early March. It’s a big step that will require a lot of co-operation to manage safely.

Simm was asked if she supports calls by the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union and NDP leader Gary Burrill for a public inquiry into the response to the pandemic at Northwood that resulted in 53 of the province’s 62 deaths.

“We have had experts come in, we’ve been transparent, and we want to learn from this,” andwered Simm. “We will be initiating those learnings ourselves and we will respond and participate in any type of opportunity for not only Northwood but the entire long-term care sector as well as the health system during this pandemic.”

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

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