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

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“Fifty-three families have lost their loved ones at Northwood due to COVID-19, and we need answers and justice,” said Erica Surette. “This tragedy cannot have been for nothing.”

Surette is the first member of a proposed class-action lawsuit launched Tuesday against Northwood Care Group Inc. and its related companies. Surette’s 66-year old mother, Patricia West, died April 22 in Halifax after contracting the virus at the Northwood Centre nursing home.

“There are lots of questions about how this happened and how it was handled,” said Surette’s lawyer Ray Wagner in a news release. “The class action goal of modifying behaviour will be especially important for this case: there may be future waves of COVID-19, and our most vulnerable and at risk, and those treating them, need to be adequately protected.”

Wagner told the Halifax Examiner that three families whose loved ones died at Northwood during the pandemic have contacted him so far. Of Nova Scotia’s 60 COVID-related deaths, 53 have been among residents of two buildings — Northwood Centre and Northwood Manor — which, at full capacity, house 485 long-term care residents. At one point, the facility had more than 300 cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff.

The complex is the largest nursing home in the region and was built 50 years ago by the non-profit organization that continues to operate it. Most of the rooms are smaller than regulations require today and many are shared by two people, and in some cases, by three. For three years, Northwood’s Board of Governors has been asking the province for millions of dollars to reconfigure the facility to reduce overcrowding and improve infection control.

A fatal move?

The statement of claim filed on behalf of Erica Surette alleges her mother, Patricia West, was moved from her single room in the Manor on March 26 to a shared room and bathroom in Northwood Centre, despite Surette’s objections. West had lived at Northwood since 2017 and was diagnosed with diabetes and dementia.

What followed that move — as described below in the statement of claim — suggests the nursing home was struggling to maintain communication with families while trying to provide care to dozens of residents who were rapidly becoming infected with the virus.

On or about April 4, 2020, Ms. Surette received correspondence on behalf of Northwood Halifax, in which they stated that “[t]he safest and most comfortable place for your loved one to be cared for is in Northwood.” It was further noted that “[w]e are prepared to care for any of our residents who become sick with COVID-19” and that efforts would be taken to prevent the spread of infection. Despite these assurances, and Ms. Surette’s concerns of her mother moving to a shared room, Ms. West had been moved to a shared room during the COVID-19 pandemic in which physical distancing was virtually impossible.

Ms. Surette was informed by her mother a few days later that her roommate had been moved out of the shared room. Northwood Halifax provided no explanation.

On or about April 10, 2020, Ms. Surette spoke with her mother via telephone, at which time Ms. West advised that she felt very sick and was no longer eating or sleeping. After hearing significant changes to her mother’s voice in a telephone conversation on or about the following day, Ms. Surette called Northwood Halifax and was informed that, just after moving to her new room, Ms. West had tested negative for COVID-19. A second test was arranged for April 11 or 12, 2020, but no results were communicated to Ms. Surette.

On or about April 12, 2020, Ms. Surette called the Facility for an update on the test results and was informed that the absence of an update must be good news.

On or about April 13, 2020, Ms. Surette again called the Facility for an update and was advised that her mother had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be moved to a floor reserved for COVID-19 patients. The nurse with whom she spoke expressed surprise that no one had provided the positive results of this test to Ms. Surette.

On or about the same date, Ms. Surette was advised that Northwood Halifax did not have vacancy in the area they had reserved for Residents who had tested positive for COVID-19, so her mother would remain in her room, despite her positive test.

On or about April 14, 2020, Ms. Surette spoke with her mother over the telephone for the last time. During this phone call, Ms. West told her daughter that she had become very sick and, due to her respiratory symptoms, she could only speak briefly.

By April 16, Patricia West was dying and her daughter chose to have her transferred to the Halifax Infirmary, where she was placed on a ventilator and cared for in the ICU until her death on April 22.

Northwood on trial?

It will be up to the courts to decide whether Northwood could and should have done more to prevent West’s death. If a judge agrees to certify the case, the timing of public health directives and what was happening inside the nursing home will likely be key issues.

The World Health Organization had declared a pandemic on March 11. It wasn’t until April 5 that the first employees at Northwood tested positive for COVID-19. It wasn’t until April 8 that Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top public health official, recommended that all health care workers wear masks. On April 12, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang officially recommended the same. Northwood caregivers were masked up before both announcements.

But the statement of claim on behalf of Erica Surette alleges that by February, 2020, public health officials knew and were advising the only effective way to prevent the spread of the virus was by implementing physical distancing measures.

“Northwood Halifax knew, or ought to have known, that elderly residents should not be housed in a Long-Term Care Facility with hundreds of other elderly residents and staff members, all in close proximity with one another, and without appropriate and effective physical distancing and quarantining measures in place,” says the statement of claim. “Northwood Halifax knew, or ought to have known, that restrictions regarding visitors, shipments, and access to multiple areas of the Facility, along with the provision of Personal Protective Equipment, were necessary to keep its staff and Residents safe.”

Given the age and the configuration of the rooms in the buildings, what else could Northwood have done?

“The Westin Hotel was a place where a lot of people from certain communities were placed so they could self-isolate,” replies Surette’s lawyer Ray Wagner. “And certainly, hotels were empty and residents could easily have been accommodated to ensure safety by moving people out of joint rooms and off floors when they weren’t infected.”

The class-action lawsuit acknowledges Northwood did take some precautionary measures — for example, establishing a separate floor for COVID patients and conducting daily temperature checks for staff — but contends the measures taken were “ineffective, inadequate, and too late.”

By April 19 — with 100 employees no longer reporting for work — Northwood managers activated its emergency plan and asked for additional medical staff and caregivers who arrived from the Halifax Infirmary, VON, and other nursing homes to help care for hundreds of residents over the next month. Today, there are still a handful of active cases among staff and residents.

“We have received notification of legal action and we will carefully review and vigorously respond,” said Murray Stenton, communications advisor for Northwood. “Northwood remains committed to the care and safety of our residents and employees as we continue to manage active cases of COVID-19 at our Halifax Campus. We appreciate the support and understanding we have been receiving from our healthcare colleagues, residents, and the community.”

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

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