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

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A proposed class action lawsuit against Northwood brought by Erica Surette on behalf of her mother who died at Northwood Centre during the COVID-19 outbreak has been widened to include the Province of Nova Scotia. Surette’s lawyer Ray Wagner alleges negligence on the part of the province, “which caused or contributed to the death of 53 residents throughout April and May of 2020.” The release says the negligence included “inadequate funding prior to and during the pandemic” and a lack of oversight that did not enforce “health and sanitation regulations.”

“One of the primary goals of the class action is to effect positive change in how residents are cared for and kept safe,” said Wagner. “This means also looking to the funding, licensing and oversight decisions that the province made that did not ensure a safe and healthy environment for vulnerable residents, or provide sufficient resources and safety-measures to hard working and underpaid staff on the front lines.”

Progressive Conservative Seniors and Long-term Care critic Barbara Adams weighed in yesterday as well, calling for an independent and public inquiry into what happened at the 485-bed nursing home. Adams told the Halifax Examiner her efforts to find out how the province and the non-profit Northwood Inc. are preparing to prevent a potential second outbreak of the deadly virus have been unsuccessful. The premier has refused to recall the legislature’s Health Committee where questions could be asked and despite a couple of conversations with Northwood’s medical and executive staff, Adams says she remains “in the dark” about plans for the future.

“What I do know is that during the crisis when Dr. Strang and the premier said everything that needed to be done to protect the health and safety of staff and residents was done. But as the critic for Long-term care I was getting phone calls from staff, from residents, and from families telling me that was not the case,” said Adams.

Adams who represents the riding of Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, says the complaints during the COVID-19 outbreak generally fell into two categories. “The first was insufficient staff to carry out the policies and procedures that were supposed to be put in place because Northwood was and is chronically understaffed,” said Adams. “The second area was whether the policies that the province put in place were consistently enforced around the province?”

At Northwood, after the emergence of COVID-19 among staff April 6, the Chief Medical officer of Public Health did allow some Northwood employees who tested negative for COVID-19 to return to work before their 14 days of self-isolation were completed. During the April 16 briefing for reporters, Strang admitted “if we had adequate staff to provide essential care, we would keep them off work. But we don’t have that luxury.”

Two days later, the federal Chief Officer of Public Health Theresa Tam stated that COVID-19 could be spread by people who showed zero symptoms of COVID and were “asymptomatic carriers.” It’s likely the virus spread after some Northwood staff and residents who tested negative for COVID-19 on Day 10 or Day 12, then tested positive on Day 14 after interacting with other staff and residents.

Both Northwood managers and Strang have used the phrase “evolving knowledge” to explain and defend why they made decisions early in the outbreak to allow staff to work at more than one location or to come back to work before their 14 days were up. At one point, 100 Northwood employees were off work — including cleaners as well as personal care workers. By early May, more than 300 cases had been identified among residents and staff in two buildings. Erica Surette’s 77-year-old mother, Patricia Best, was moved from a private room in Northwood Manor to a shared room in Northwood Centre. She eventually tested positive for COVID-19 after her roommate was moved out without explanation. Erica Surette believes if the nursing home had continued to provide her mother with a private room, she might not have died on April 22.

PC Long-term Care critic Barbara Adams has a different take on the situation. She notes the rambling Oceanview Continuing Care Centre in Eastern Passage also double-bunks many residents and has some rooms that house three residents. During the pandemic Adams, who is a physiotherapist, went to work one day a week at 177-bed Oceanview Centre. There, Adams notes that the outbreak of the virus was contained to two staff and one resident. She herself is not convinced the size (485 residents) and physical configuration of Northwood — with its many small, shared rooms — is the reason the virus spread like wildfire.

“The real story is Northwood was understaffed before hand,” suggests Adams. “Then you add in COVID and all the staff who were out sick or self-isolating. So it was difficult to do the things you need to do to maintain infection control, like cleaning, because you just don’t have the people. The issue is the government has not staffed this place sufficiently and bringing in emergency staff from around the province was a band-aid.”

Shortly after arriving at Northwood Centre and Northwood Manor, RNs from the Halifax Infirmary’s Covid-19 unit complained that infection control procedures were inadequate and expressed concern about living conditions for residents. Their union —  the NSGEU — pleaded with the McNeil government to call a public inquiry.

Adams says a public inquiry should have been called as soon as so many residents began to die at one facility. An inquiry is still needed, she argues, “and I hope the staff at Northwood will be given protection so that they will be able to speak freely without fear of losing their jobs.”

So far, the Premier has promised to “review” the situation — a response light years away from changes being demanded by Opposition politicians and this proposed lawsuit seeking certification through the courts.

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

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1 Comment

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  1. I am worried that government will not do much. The problems in LTC,more specifically nursing homes has been well known. Going after Northwood isn’t the answer, given the circumstances they did what they could. Barb Adams is correct the system is at fault, but what will it take to make the necessary changes?