Long-Term Care Minister says “soul searching” is needed, but no apologies for deaths of long-term residents during pandemic

Merrilee Fullerton pointed the finger at previous governments for crisis in the sector

Days after a damning report about the state of Ontario’s long-term care system, the minister responsible for the sector responded to the 322-page document in a media briefing Monday, and spent much of it passing the blame for the crisis on to previous governments.

The Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission report said the sector was not prepared for a pandemic, and was made worse by the provincial government’s slow and reactive response when the virus arrived.

“I absolutely take responsibility for the well-being of residents in long-term care, and staff, along with all the other entities that have been working around the clock to address this hundred-year pandemic against an unknown virus,” Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton told reporters.

The report blamed a lack of adequate testing, shortages of staff and personal protective equipment, improper cohorting of infected and non-infected residents, and a general failure to recognize the risk posed by COVID-19.

Fullerton said Ontario was overdue for a pandemic.

“The report makes it clear the lessons learned from SARS were forgotten or not implemented in the long-term care sector. The report also makes it clear that the long-standing issues neglected by successive governments contributed to the spread of COVID-19,” said Fullerton.

“I look back and say why did it take so long without addressing long-term care? Our government is addressing it and taking responsibility after so many years of neglect by previous governments.”

While the minister said she took responsibility for the well-being of long-term care residents, reporters pressed Fullerton on whether the Ford government would apologize for what happened in the sector.

“I think collectively as a society we need to do some soul-searching and understand why it took a pandemic to address the capacity issues in long-term care and the staffing issues,” she said.

“Government coordination takes time and it just wasn’t a match for the speed of COVID-19. There are many lessons learned from wave one, wave two and there will be lessons learned from wave three.”

Fullerton said the government is making good on its commitment to repair and rebuild capacity in long-term care homes.

“We have over 20,000 new and over 15,000 upgraded spaces in development. That’s more than 60 per cent of our goal of creating 30,000 new spaces in a decade,” explained Fullerton. “And our government is investing more than $9.6 billion new dollars in response to the pandemic to shore up staffing and modernize our long-term care homes.”

She said the government was making progress and expanding the pipeline to get more staff into homes where they are sorely needed.

“For example, the training programs that we’re investing in through Ontario’s public colleges, private career colleges and school boards will graduate up to 16,000 PSWs (personal support workers) in the next year, and more than two and a half times pre-pandemic levels,” said Fullerton.

“I am committed to making long-term care a better place for staff to work and a better place for residents to live.”

When reporters asked if Fullerton would remain at the media briefing a little longer because there were other people on the phone line, the minister shuffled her papers and walked away from the podium and headed to Question Period in the legislature.