After 27 long days, Au Château Home for the Aged finally had its infectious disease outbreak declared over on January 17, but not before 49 residents and 55 staff were infected with either COVID-19, the coronavirus-HKU1 or both. It was a hard stretch, admits administrator Jacques Dupuis, though he is relieved only two resident cases were “fairly serious” and both have now recovered.
“The residents suffer when we have an outbreak, not just because many are sick but because they have to isolate. If one person is not sick but has a roommate that tests positive, they also have to isolate for ten days. It’s hard on them,” Dupuis acknowledges.
It is also hard on families who can’t visit, and Dupuis says this outbreak was ill-timed, starting just before Christmas on December 22. The home has also been struggling with staff shortages due to the sick time, as employees who test positive have to be away for ten days, leaving the others to take on extra work.
“Our staff is overrun, working seven days per week and double shifts,” notes Dupuis. He is grateful the outbreak is over and they can return to a full complement.
Dupuis says the situation has only highlighted the importance of continued vigilance, as the home “cannot afford to have more staff get sick” and “our residents are still in the vulnerable category and need to be protected as much as possible.”
With the outbreak measures lifted January 17, the home was finally able to reopen to visitors, but its visitation policy for unvaccinated people remains unchanged – a decision that some are vehemently opposing.
Protestors demand equal visiting rights for the unvaccinated
For some time, Au Château has been facing criticism from unvaccinated family members who say they do not have fair access to their loved one as they cannot enter the home. Au Château has arranged for an adjacent room to be used for residents to spend time with unvaccinated visitors, calling this space the “Coin des amis.” However, critics say this is inadequate as former caregivers can no longer provide the care they used to, such as help with feeding, dressing, checking on medical conditions and so on. Dupuis states that “there is no such thing as an unvaccinated caregiver”, as one of the prerequisites to be recognized as a caregiver is to be vaccinated.
Nonetheless, family members still consider themselves caregivers and feel helpless as they are unable to provide care, leading to complaints that they are being discriminated against while their loved ones suffer from their absence.
The situation boiled over on Tuesday, Jan. 17 as a group protested in front of Au Château from 6 to 7 pm, hoping to influence the new board of directors meeting the next day, Jan. 18 at noon. They held signs asking for the end of the vaccine mandate at Au Château. “No more mandate, I want Momdate” read a sign held by Lise Rhéault, whose 84-year old mother suffers from dementia and does not understand why her daughter, once her main caregiver, cannot come in to see her.
Approximately 30 people marched in front of the home’s entrance, including people from as far away as Temiskaming and Sudbury, as well as local residents. Two non-uniformed liaison officers from the OPP attended to ensure the protest remained peaceful, and were met with full cooperation. They asked the protestors not to go onto the property or block the entrance, saying the home’s administration did not want the protest disturbing residents. Despite the freezing rain, participants seemed in good spirits, waving signs and discussing amongst each other with no loud chants. Some of the drivers passing by honked in support.
What the protestors were hoping for was a decision from the board the next day to end the vaccination requirement for visitors to attend inside the home. They nearly got their wish as the new board was equally divided on the issue, a 3-3 tie vote finally defeating the motion to repeal the requirement.
Board evenly split on ending vaccine requirement
The January 18 meeting began with the nearly brand new board holding elections. Returning member Catherine Neddow retained her role as vice-chair while Ronald Demers was named chair. Those two provincial appointees are joined by new municipal appointees Fern Pellerin, Jamie Restoule, Kathleen Thorne Rochon and Anne Tessier.
During the meeting, Dupuis summarized the recent outbreak as well as staff shortages that resulted, and also mentioned that the home’s insurance does not cover COVID liability. “If there’s an action, the corporation itself would have to fund its own defense,” he noted. Neddow stressed that for a family to sue the home, ‘they would have to prove gross negligence.” Dupuis agreed, but said even if a suit were unsuccessful, the corporation would still have to put up money for its defense.
When the home’s visitation policy came up, Tessier made a lengthy plea in favour of abolishing the vaccination requirement for visitors, stating that the COVID-19 vaccine is “still considered an experimental drug” that should not be forced on people. She argued that, contrary to what the government was saying when the vaccine was rolled out, it does not prevent transmission but only graver forms of sickness. “Both vaccinated and unvaccinated can transmit” the virus, she pointed out, underscoring her point by saying that 95% of the Au Château community is vaccinated and there are still outbreaks. She added that family caregivers are willing to be tested and wear a mask, and would represent no greater danger to residents than vaccinated people. Finally, she stressed that given the current staff shortages, family caregivers are needed now more than ever, and would enhance resident care.
Neddow said she wanted to “err on the side of caution” and deal with the policy piece by piece, not opening up the home to all unvaccinated visitors in general right away, but starting with just essential caregivers. Urging prudence, she stated “we’re dealing with a very fragile group,” many with serious underlying conditions.
With the understanding that Tessier’s motion would lift the requirement for essential caregivers, Neddow, Tessier and Pellerin voted in favour, with the latter saying the home could perhaps limit the number of caregivers who could come in at one time.
Restoule, Thorne-Rochon and Demers wanted a more tentative approach. Restoule, who works in health care, cautioned that Au Château residents are among “the frailest group we have within our community” and that the home is responsible for their care. “We’re still seeing outbreaks… I don’t think we’re out of this yet. I think it’s better to stay safe for the time being,” he stated, adding that there are also other respiratory viruses and the flu looming large. “The safer we can be, the better it is for our residents.”
Thorne-Rochon agreed with a cautious approach, but also recognized the important role of caregivers. While she was not in favour of repealing the vaccine requirement for general visitors just yet, she said she “would entertain further discussion on essential caregivers” being able to enter the home “with strict infection control” measures. However, she said this should come after consultation with staff to see how the change would be implemented on a practical level, and suggested bringing the issue back after administration had time to come up with a plan.
Demers agreed that staff should come back with recommendations, adding that the ultimate goal of returning to normal is shared by all. “Nobody wants the vaccine policy to remain in place any longer than needed,” he expressed, but added that the pandemic “is not over yet.” He reminded that the policy had been adopted unanimously by the previous board. “Our duty of care is to make sure our residents stay well and that we take care of our staff.”
Neddow said that the Coin des amis was inadequate for caregivers to perform certain functions, like “dressing and undressing, making sure they take their Ensure” and so on, basically taking away their ability to properly care for their loved one. Dupuis countered that the Coin des amis was never meant as a space to provide direct care, which he assured is provided by staff, but only a space for social visitation. He stressed that all residents receive the care they need from staff.
In the end, Tessier’s motion was called to a vote. Demers, the last to speak, said he would normally not create a tie as chair, but felt this was “a substantial issue” that required him taking a position. His tie vote led to the motion being defeated, but he assured the matter was not over.
Dupuis concurred. “This doesn’t mean it’s not going to be revisited,” he said, adding that staff keeps monitoring the situation and “once we are confident this is behind us,” they would then recommend suspending the policy.