A police investigation is underway at a private long-term care facility in western Montreal where Quebec Premier Francois Legault said 31 people have died since March 13.
Legault told reporters Saturday that at least five people at the Residence Herron in Dorval, Que., now under government trusteeship, died after testing positive for COVID-19, which continues to be a major problem at care homes across the country.
"Quite honestly, I think ... there was gross negligence at Residence Herron," a visibly shaken Legault said.
The news came on a long weekend where care homes have been in the spotlight because of troubling reports in Ontario and Quebec.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in an emotional speech in the House of Commons on Saturday, noted that the crisis is most devastating for the elderly, some of whom live in long-term care homes. He said the last members of the "greatest generation" who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War are now the elderly most at risk of dying from COVID-19.
As of Saturday, more than 23,000 Canadians had tested positive for COVID-19. The total death count is now over 650.
Legault said Quebec health officials only discovered the magnitude of the Residence Herron problem Friday night after getting an order to access patient files.
"Obviously, it's huge, 31 deaths in a few weeks," Legault said.
Legault said the owner of the private long-term care residence runs other such homes and they will all be inspected. Health Minister Danielle McCann said 40 other private long-term care homes operating across the province also will receive visits.
Katasa Groupe says on its website it acquired Residence Herron in 2015. Calls and emails to a Katasa Groupe spokesperson were not returned Saturday.
Regional health authorities investigated Residence Herron on March 29, three days after word of the first death. They found the residence "deserted" as staff had walked off the job.
Lynne McVey, head of the regional health board, said her team began assisting the short-staffed owners of the residence that day, helping feed and change patients.
But McVey, fighting back tears at one point during a news conference, said they didn't get full co-operation from management and had to get a legal order Wednesday to enact any measures necessary under provincial health laws. That's when they got access to families' contact information and began examining medical files.
"We're very sorry you were kept in the dark," McVey said to families. "Our mission ... in the public health care system is to put residents, families, clients, first, we are very concerned and we're going around to visit all our private long-term care facilities."
Peter Wheeland, a Montreal man whose 87-year-old mother Connie was at Herron for about two years before being transferred to hospital on Friday at the family's request, told The Canadian Press his family was relieved.
"She was a little worried about at first, she didn't want to be taken to a hospital because she had a fear if she went to a hospital, she'd never get out," Wheeland said. "Towards the end, we convinced her that the fear should be about Herron and not the hospital."
He said communication has been smooth since the transfer and his mother immediately got a COVID-19 test — something routinely denied at Residence Herron.
Wheeland recounted talking to a couple of nurses, including one who'd been caring for his mother.
"I asked her point-blank, I said 'If that was your mother in there, would you leave her there or would you take her to the hospital?," Wheeland said. "And she didn't hesitate a second, she said I'd take her to the hospital."
Wheeland's father Ken, 85, died of COVID-19 at another Montreal-area long-term care home a week ago, he said.
"I don't want to bury both of my parents at the same time," Wheeland said. "They spent their life together, they were married 63 years together, we don't want them to go together."
Federal politicians and public health officials promised new measures to further protect care home residents.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam had a slew of recommendations for long-term care homes, including limiting volunteering to "essential work only," like feeding residents.
Anyone entering such homes should wear a mask for the duration of their shift or visit, meal times should not involve residents congregating closely together and items used by many people at these facilities should be cleaned and disinfected, she added.
Meanwhile, at a group home for adults with disabilities in Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto, all but four care workers walked off the job after hearing that 10 residents and two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, Participation House's executive director said.
In an interview Friday, Shelley Brillinger said managers had stepped in to fill some of the gaps in front-line care, but that the situation was completely unsustainable.
"It feels like a very bad dream," she said.
In a press release issued Saturday, the group home said it was making sure all of its 42 residents continued to receive full care in spite of the staffing crisis.
"We are actively working to ensure we have staffing coverage for specialized positions including nurses, personal support workers, and food services," the press release said. "We continue to welcome applications from the community for these positions."
Brillinger noted that all staff have personal protective equipment, which they have been using since the first residents started showing symptoms nearly a week ago.
The province is also experiencing outbreaks at 79 long-term care homes, a daily epidemiologic summary reported. Among them is the 65-bed Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., which has seen 29 of its residents die.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he was thinking of the front-line workers across the country.
"We are doing everything we can to protect them that will help them protect the most vulnerable and again if I go back to the story in Quebec, it is heart-wrenching," he said.
"I know it is very, very difficult and until you walk a mile in their shoes, none of us can really appreciate the pressures they are facing on the front lines. How do you leave someone there for two or three days without making it back? How do you humanly do that?"
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said 101 long-term care homes in the province have had a COVID-19 outbreak.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Tam lauded B.C., which has stopped long-term care home staff from working at multiple facilities in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Quebec, patients' rights advocate Paul Brunet called for a coroner's inquest to investigate all deaths reported in long-term care homes since March 1, suspecting the number of COVID-19 deaths in the province is much more widespread than officially reported.
Trudeau, in Parliament, said all Canadians now have a duty to protect the elderly.
"And for them, and for their grandchildren, we will endure, we will persevere and we will prevail."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2020.
— With files from Teresa Wright, Nick Wells, Nicole Thompson, Salmaan Farooqui and Joan Bryden.
Tara Deschamps and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press