Starting on February 1, visitors are able to enter Au Château Home for the Aged no matter their vaccination status, after the long-term care facility’s board voted to remove the COVID-19 vaccination requirement during a special meeting held on January 27.
The move came after much controversy and has caused quite a shake-up within the organization, with Director Jacques Dupuis taking a medical leave and the home issuing a statement to say their staff was being harassed and their reputation was being attacked, which at least partially motivated the change in policy.
For the past several weeks, Au Château had been vehemently criticized for not allowing unvaccinated family members inside the home, even though the organization had provided an adjacent space for them to visit with residents. Some caregivers argued that they could not provide care in this public space, called the Coin des amis, and they wanted to enter their loved one’s room to help them with tasks such as dressing, brushing their hair and so on, while also checking on their condition. They insisted that they were no more of a threat to residents than their vaccinated counterparts, as the vaccine had been shown not to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
Facing pressure from this group, including a demonstration held in front of the home on January 17, the brand new board of Au Château discussed the policy on January 18, with half of the members wanting it struck down immediately and the other half wanting to consult with staff and take things more gradually. Municipal appointees Anne Tessier and Fern Pellerin along with provincial appointee Catherine Neddow voted to abolish the vaccine requirement for visitors, while municipal appointees Kathleen Thorne Rochon and Jamie Restoule along with provincial appointee Ron Demers voted against the motion. The tie led to the motion being defeated.
What ensued was a public tirade against the last three, and promises of more protests until the decision was reversed. Board chair Ron Demers said he received calls at home, some polite and some not so polite, and he imagined the other members had also been contacted.
A few days later, it was learned that Au Château director Jacques Dupuis had taken a leave. The board convened a special meeting on January 27, holding first an in-camera session to discuss the human resources issue and then a public session to reopen the debate on the vaccination requirement.
While the chair could not provide details on exactly why Dupuis was on leave, he did read a memo by the director following the in-camera session. “I will be on medical leave for an undetermined period of time, and I appoint Mrs. Cindy Brouillette as person in charge with the title of Acting Administrator,” Dupuis wrote.
Brouillette then introduced herself. An employee of Au Château for 27 years, she has been Director of Care at the facility for the past four years, a role she will continue while covering for Dupuis. In a later conversation, Demers said he had full confidence in Brouillette to steer the ship. “We’re in good hands, things are going smoothly,” he stated on Monday, Jan. 30.
The one thing on the agenda of the special public meeting was an amendment to the vaccination policy, which Demers specified had been prepared by Dupuis “after consultation and input from senior staff.” Brouillette explained that the amendment would allow for unvaccinated caregivers and visitors to enter the home, but all other requirements would remain in place, meaning they would still have to be tested and wear a mask upon entry.
Demers clarified that his vote at the previous meeting was meant to allow time for staff feedback, and he felt more at ease having the policy change drafted by administration after due diligence. He noted that the existing policy had been adopted unanimously by the previous board, stressing that the administrator was responsible for its implementation, not its adoption. He also mentioned that the policy was “vetted by several people” and that it had been a good tool to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, with Au Château comparing favourably to other long term care homes in the province. However, the time had come to review the policy, Demers said, adding “new members, new ideas, new orientation.”
Brouillette noted that the proposed change would take effect only February 1, to allow time for logistical planning and notifying partners and families.
Policy change quickly adopted
When Demers did a round table asking for comments or questions, there was little to no debate. When Anne Tessier got her turn to speak, she began talking about “how COVID spreads…” before being cut off by Kathleen Thorne Rochon calling a point of order. Tessier had spoken at length against the vaccine requirement at the previous meeting, calling the COVID-19 vaccine “an experimental drug” that the government had duped her into taking. Thorne Rochon was not keen on another speech. “I think that we’ve all heard the medical opinions on this over the last three years and I just don’t think, for the sake of time, that we need to go into another rehash of medical opinions from somebody who is not in the health care business,” she stated, asking that discussion be kept to the policy.
Thorne Rochon did have things to say about the policy change, reminding that at the last meeting, several members talked about ending the vaccine requirement for essential caregivers first, before opening it up to all visitors – an approach she still favoured. She felt the change “should be done gradually under the advice of our administrator and our staff and also in conjunction with the families and residents and caregivers of all of our residents.”
As the lone dissenting voice on the issue, she deplored that the board seemed to be caving to bullying tactics. “I am not a big fan of revising policy just due to political pressure, and I find that the approach that’s been taken with the revisions on this policy is very reactionary… I just wish that we were doing it with a little bit more time and a little bit more forethought (…) in a way that was gradual and measured and that took into account the wishes of all of our residents.”
Predictably, in a recorded vote, Thorne Rochon was the only voice against the policy change, leading to its adoption in under 16 minutes.
“I think we’ve done what we had to do under the circumstances,” concluded Demers before closing the meeting.
Home’s reputation and staff under threat
In a release issued after the decision, Au Château specified that the change had two objectives, namely “preserving the Home’s long-standing reputation for quality care, in the face of attacks on this reputation” and “addressing the harassment that the employees have been subjected to, leading to security concerns.”
When asked about the reasons invoked, Brouillette mentioned verbal abuse and an escalating concern for staff safety. “People were afraid for their safety… there was serious concern by staff,” she stated. “Some people were afraid to walk to their vehicle” after a shift. There were also instances of verbal abuse over the phone, and Brouillette said some nurses were taken away from resident care duties only to be lambasted over the phone. “There were effects on the reputation [of the home] and the security of staff; we had to make a decision,” she said to explain why administration recommended the change.
Demers was asked if police were called to investigate any harassment incidents, and confirmed that police had been contacted but it was up to them to decide if further investigation is warranted. He noted that what constitutes harassment is what is felt by the person on the receiving end, but that may not fit the legal definition. He did confirm that staff harassment was a factor in the board’s decision. “Our priority is the health and well-being of our residents but also our staff. In order to give quality care, you need the people who provide that care. If we lose people because of harassment…”, this would have an effect on resident care, Demers said.
When asked to respond to critics saying the board caved to political pressure, Demers acknowledged that the lobbying did “precipitate the decision”, but that resident and staff care were the first concerns. “Everything that was done was done with diligence,” he insisted. He mentioned that the COVID-19 policy was drafted nearly three years ago and had undergone at least 12 amendments since that time, so revisions based on new circumstances, new variants and new government directives were always ongoing.
Lobbyists thrilled, family council supportive of decision
For Jamie Lee Desroches, Lise Rhéault and other unvaccinated caregivers, February 1 couldn’t come fast enough. Rhéault had been fighting to get in to see her 84-year old mother, a dementia sufferer who often refused to go to the Coin des amis and could not understand why her daughter, once an essential caregiver, would not come in to see her. Rhéault was elated when she heard the policy would be lifted, finally giving her full access to care for her mother.