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Over the last two months, Nova Scotians have endured tragedy upon tragedy. The worst mass murder in modern Canadian history. A helicopter crash and the death of Snowbirds’ pilot. And all the while, COVID-19 ravaged the biggest long-term care home in Atlantic Canada.
COMMONS: Pandemic is currently focusing on how COVID-19 is affecting long-term care in Canada.
Featured in this episode: Jennifer Henderson (Halifax Examiner), Janice Keefe
To learn more:
“Nova Scotia’s lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic” by Taryn Grant, Cassidy Chisholm, Elizabeth Chiu and Alex Cooke in CBC Nova Scotia
“The Northwood board has been expressing “grave concern” about double occupancy rooms for years” by Jennifer Henderson in the Halifax Examiner
“Strang, union clash over COVID-19 concerns at Northwood” by John McPhee in The Chronicle Herald
This episode is sponsored by Wealthbar
Additional music from Audio Network
“I Am a Man Who Will Fight for Your Honor” by Chris Zabriskie, adapted.
EPISODE 6 – “NORTHWOOD”
One of the most difficult things about the last two months is that people can’t mourn collectively. If someone is dying of COVID-19, the whole family can’t gather around their bed and be with them. Funerals have been curtailed. Memorials are taking place mostly online. And when something truly awful happens, the kind of event that cuts right to the heart of a whole community, there’s little we can do.
Nova Scotians have been experiencing that reality over and over again in the last two months. Like the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia locked itself down on March 22 to stop the growth of coronavirus infections.
You start to think, “Can the news get any worse?”
That’s Jennifer Henderson, a freelance journalist who’s been covering the pandemic for the Halifax Examiner.
You know, you’re in the midst of a pandemic and there are people dying every day at one nursing home in your backyard, and people are worried, you know, about going to work. And then we have this mass shooting that you couldn’t even imagine in a very quiet, rural part of the province.
[NEWS CLIP 1, MALE]
Nova Scotians this morning are in a state of shock as this quiet province comes to grips with the fact that it now owns the grim title of the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history.
You know, you see the “Nova Scotia Strong” everywhere. And, you know, sometimes I have to think, “Is that about the pandemic or is that about the mass murder?” We’ve been through a great deal in the last eight weeks.
The tragedies in Nova Scotia have just been piling up, one on top of the other. People haven’t even been given the chance to come to terms with one of them, before another hits. But they’ve been trying to find a way through. Tributes poured out online. People shared videos, made signs, wrote songs.
Abbigail Cowbrough was one of those people. Standing on the deck of the HMCS Fredericton, she played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. Her performance was part of a video put together by the Nova Scotia Pipers’ Tribute to honour the victims of the shooting.
Five days later, on April 29th, Abbigail died. She and five Canadian Armed forces members were killed in a helicopter crash near Greece. Three of the victims, including Abigail, called Nova Scotia home. The province once again mourned.
On May 3rd, the Snowbirds launched Operation: Inspiration, a cross-country tour meant to boost morale amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They started off in Nova Scotia, first flying over Halifax to honour Abbigail and five others killed in the helicopter crash. And then they did it again, this time over Portapique.
[NEWS CLIP 2, FEMALE]
A much-needed moral boost on this sunny Sunday. The fames aerobatic team, the Snowbirds, launched a coast-to-coast tour in our region today, something especially appreciated after two devastating tragedies.
Flying with them that day was Capt. Jenn Casey. Casey died on May 17th when a Snowbird jet crashed in Kamloops, B.C. And again, the province did their best to honour her life.
[NEWS CLIP 3, MALE]
The body of Captain Jennifer Casey returned to Halifax, the city where her life began. Important for the people of Halifax, hundreds of whom lined the streets as the motorcade passed by the places that were significant to Casey. The home where she grew up, and the radio station where she worked before joining the armed forces.
The province’s grief has been undercut by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mourning has to be governed by strict rules for the public’s own protection. A community can come together in some ways, but only so far.
And while these shocking tragedies transpired, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept pace. It’s doesn’t feel as sudden as the others. Instead, it’s been unfolding relentlessly over months, taking the lives of 59 Nova Scotians.
Today Nova Scotia is the third-hardest hit province per capita. There have been around a dozen outbreaks at Nova Scotia long-term care homes. But almost all of those deaths, 51 people out of those 59 have taken place at a single facility: The Northwood Centre in Halifax.
I’m Arshy Mann, and from CANADALAND, this is Commons.
[NEWS CLIP 4, MALE]
Our coverage begins tonight in Nova Scotia, where the province has recorded the Maritimes’ first death related to the virus.
[NEWS CLIP 5, MALE]
Yesterday, we announced, uh, three residents at Northwood, uh, who had died of COVID-19. We unfortunately have to announce, uh, two more.
[NEWS CLIP 6, FEMALE]
The individual who passed away was a resident at Northwood, and marks the tenth death in the province, and sixth at that facility.
[NEWS CLIP 7, MALE]
Today I’m sad to say that we’ve lost two more of our seniors at Northwood.
[NEWS CLIP 8, FEMALE]
Thirty-five people at the facility have now died of COVID.
[NEWS CLIP 9, MALE]
Unfortunately, we have to report three additional deaths at Northwood. We now have 51 Nova Scotians who have died of COVID-19.
[NEWS CLIP 10, MALE]
Today, we mourn another loss of an individual at Northwood. We now have 56 Nova Scotians who have died.
In some ways, the pandemic in Nova Scotia is playing out in much the same way as the rest of the country. Like the other provinces, the vast majority of deaths are related to long-term care. In Nova Scotia’s case, that number is 95 percent.
But almost all of those people died at Northwood.
Northwood is the largest nursing home in Atlantic Canada. It’s really a campus. There are three main buildings. It’s right near the Macdonald Bridge, which crosses Halifax Harbor
Northwood is run by a non-profit with a long history in Halifax. Here’s Janet Simm, Northwood’s CEO, speaking in a recent video.
The organization first began as a social movement in response to the plight of seniors living alone in Halifax, a real community effort to make this organization come together and respond to those unmet needs.
In 1962, 285 people gathered at a school in the south end of Halifax to talk about the need for affordable housing for seniors. And, by the end of that meeting, Northwood was founded. Northwood Towers opened up five years later, offering cheap apartments for older Haligonians. Three years after that, they began to build Northwood Manor, which was for seniors who needed some assistance. And then in 1970, they started construction on Northwood Centre, which was a nursing home for people who needed more serious care.
It is a combination of a retirement-living community and a nursing home, as many places are these days.
And since then, Northwood has been very well-regarded in Nova Scotia.
The place has a terrific reputation in the community because it’s a home. They have a radio station.
Good morning. This is NWBC, your Seniors Community Broadcasting Club, thanks to Northward Care Inc. Your host this morning, Bob Marks with my “Down Memory Lane” program. It’s time to have a little bit of a request in here. So, Bernice of Summerside, and a selection from 1942.
They have a radio station, they have a bar. They have a fitness center for people with dementia. It has a well-deserved reputation in the community. This is not a, uh, for-profit commercially run. This is a not-for-profit community board of governors, which did have the top rating from the accreditation agency prior to the pandemic.
Henderson says that everyday Nova Scotians haven’t been putting the blame on Northwood.
Imagine, despite the headlines and despite the knowledge that all these people have died, people are still publicly supporting Northwood. As I say, I’m struggling to think of a single negative letter that blamed Northwood.
Part of the reason why people aren’t blaming management is that Northwood has been pretty forthcoming about what’s been happening.
Northwood management has been more than transparent with the public. They’ve published a timeline. They’ve done daily information updates. They took worker’s temperatures beginning and end of every shift. So they seem to do all the things they could do. And yet this was still a nightmare.
So how is it that a facility that everyone agrees is one of the best ones out there could be the site of so much death? The first thing to understand is that, like the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia has serious systemic problems with long-term care.
Well, prior to the pandemic, it was well-known that Northwood and every nursing home in Nova Scotia had chronic staff shortages. When people were sick, they simply worked short. This was documented by the expert panel. Numerous reports. It was a given.
That expert panel put out its findings in 2019, and the chair of it was Janice Keefe.
My name’s Janice Keefe. I’m, uh, director of the Nova Scotia Center on Aging. I’m professor and chair of the Department of Family Studies and Gerontology at Mount St. Vincent University.
The panel was put together after a number of deaths due to neglect in Nova Scotia’s long-term care homes.
The impetus was, uh, bedsores. There were a number of residents in long-term care who actually died because of, uh, inappropriate care around bedsores.
And the broad takeaways would be familiar to anyone who’s been listening to this podcast.
What we basically found was that this was a sector that needed resources, that needed immediate attention. There were a lot of issues around staffing.
Staff were constantly working short-handed. And the long-term care sector was viewed as a much worse place to work than other parts of the healthcare system.
But for the main part, the staff themselves were really frustrated about not being able to do the best care that they should be doing, because they didn’t have enough time.
And as with other provinces, there are massive waitlists, especially because Nova Scotians tend to be older on average than the rest of the country.
When people from Ontario talk about, you know, when the population is going to hit, uh, 20 percent, uh, 65 and over, we’ve been dealing with that for over five years.
And the residents had increasingly complex health problems. Janice Keefe has seen that first-hand over the last thirty years.
So the biggest change… I will tell you, the biggest change is the residents. I worked in a municipality in Nova Scotia and the people going to the facilities would drive their cars. They lived in the nursing homes, but they… They went out to visit. They were mobile. They were not at the end of their life.
But these are problems across all long-term care homes. It still doesn’t answer why Northwood, in particular, has experienced such a deadly outbreak of COVID-19.
It was March 15 when the first three Nova Scotians tested positive for COVID-19. Only a day later, Northwood barred all visitors to their facilities.
But, as in the rest of Canada, the provincial government and the health authority, they weren’t talking about what would happen if the virus actually got into a long-term care facility.
My memory of those briefings with our chief medical officer of health and the premier, which happened daily at the beginning of the pandemic, was that all the focus was on the hospitals.
By the end of March, social distancing was put into effect across the province. And it wasn’t until early April that Northwood knew that virus was in the facility.
The first staff member to test positive for COVID at Northwood was April 5th. The first three residents followed on April 7th. The virus was brought into the Northwood Center building by workers who were asymptomatic and did not suspect they were ill.
The day after an employee tested positive, Northwood mandated that all staff had to wear a mask. That was actually two days before Canada’s chief public health officer recommended the same thing, and a full six days before the provincial government made it mandatory for all long-term care workers.
But according to the CEO of Northwood, in hindsight, the horse was already out of the barn, so to speak. Although they were ahead of both the provincial and federal guidelines with respect to wearing masks, it came too late to prevent the spread of infection at Northwood.
Over the next five days, more residents and staff members began to test positive. And workers who had previously been told to self-isolate were asked to return to Northwood if they tested negative. That was a mistake.
So, we know that in the period where people were becoming infected, that staff who were supposed to be out for 14 days, self isolating, were allowed to return to work because they needed them so desperately, if they tested negative. And then Northwood and the public health officials in Nova Scotia learned that you could test negative one day and positive the next.
Northwood had prepared a quarantine area for residents who tested positive. It could fit 20 people. But by April 15, just ten days after the first staff member tested positive, they had to open another area. And the virus continued to spread amongst the workers.
And you can see that because, by April 18th, they had so many staff who either wouldn’t come to work because they were afraid of getting sick, or they were self isolating because they had come in contact by providing direct care to one of these sick residents. They were told to stay home for 14 days.
Around 80 long-term care workers were off work, and the staffing levels were down to just 60 percent of what they normally would be. Then came the horrific weekend of April 18th and 19th. That was the same weekend a mass shooter killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia. At Northwood, residents began to die. Five people died of COVID-19 in just two days.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil held an emergency press conference that Sunday.
We weren’t scheduled to have a news conference today, but I felt the need to be here to provide you with an update on one of our long-term care facilities, Northwood, that’s dealing with an outbreak of COVID.
I never imagined when I went to bed last night that I would wake up to the horrific news that an active shooter was on the loose in Nova Scotia. This is one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history. There are a number of other families who are dealing with their own loss after–after their loved ones died of COVID, five people over the weekend who lived at Northwood. And I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how difficult that is, and my heart goes out to all of you.
That weekend, the province really began to act. The Halifax Infirmary COVID-19 unit was redeployed from their hospital to Northwood; additional workers were brought in from the Red Cross, Victorian Order of Nurses and Emergency Health Services; the province set up a hotel as an off-site ward for Northwood residents who recovered for COVID-19… But people kept dying. Six more residents died in three days. And the union representing Nova Scotia’s nurses said that workers who were brought in to help staff Northwood found a total lack of infection controls and not enough PPE. They said it was like “walking into a war zone.”
Here’s NSGEU president Jason MacLean speaking to Global News.
Well, when they got to Northwood, there was no supplies for them. Uh, actually, even yesterday morning, they had… They were down to three gowns. A lot of residents up and walking around, both that are sick and those that are presumed sick. So they’re up and they’re–they’re–they’re trying to use the phone at–at the counter, and they’re touching everything that’s around there.
Now, Northwood officials said that these were nurses used to infection control in a hospital setting, and that simply wasn’t appropriate or possible in an old nursing home like Northwood; that, basically, it was apples and oranges.
And Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer, Robert Strang, blasted the union and essentially accused them of lying.
They’re using, frankly, fear, fear mongering and hyperbole in terms of the way they’re describing this situation. When we talk to frontline people who are in Northwood, they… What–what the NSGU is saying is actually inaccurate.
Over the next week, another twelve people died at Northwood. And during that time, the Nova Scotian government declined to increase the wages of front-line workers, like other provinces had been doing. Another 16 people died in the first week of May and infections amongst residents and staff continued to inch up.
On May 8th, Nova Scotia finally agreed to give a pay bump to health care workers on the front lines. But it would only be a one-time payment of $2000. Since then, another 18 people have died at Northwood, bringing the total number up to 52 dead in the facility.
It’s clear today that some mistakes were made, both by Northwood and the provincial government. Like long-term care facilities across Canada, workers were a major vector for transmitting the virus. Workers should have been wearing masks the minute we knew the virus was in Nova Scotia. And if they were exposed, they shouldn’t have been allowed to come back to work before the two-week quarantine was up, even if they tested negative.
Whether or not care workers had adequate PPE, and the facility had proper infection controls, hasn’t been determined yet. The nurses union said it was totally unacceptable, but Northwood and the health authority maintain that it was all up to par. But what’s not in dispute is that one of the biggest factors at play during the Northwood outbreak is the building itself.
So there’s general agreement that the reason Northwood was so hard hit by COVID was because the rooms were smaller than in newer nursing homes. And it spread like wildfire.
In Northwood Centre, where the most disabled residents lived, the rooms and bathrooms were often shared.
It’s more like… More like a hospital. And the rooms are small, like hospital rooms for that time, and most of them are shared. So they’re double occupancy and there’s room for about one chair for a visitor and one walker. And there’s curtains between those beds. People are not only sharing a bathroom, they’re sharing a tight space.
But of course, most of our residents have dementia and they don’t respect those boundaries. They’re in each other’s faces and in each other’s stuff and borrowing their false teeth. You know that… That’s what goes on.
It’s those lack of single-occupancy rooms that Northwood CEO Janet Simm also places most of the blame on.
I asked her at one briefing, you know, “What could have been done in your view to prevent the rapid spread?” And she mentioned the double rooms, getting rid of those, and if employees, in hindsight, had put the masks on sooner.
Before the current Liberal government, the last two Nova Scotian premiers did make improvements to long-term care facilities. In the late 2010s, Rodney MacDonald’s Progressive Conservatives opened long-term care beds across the province and even upgraded some older buildings.
And after that, Darrell Dexter’s NDP government had eleven long-term care homes slated for upgrades. But since Stephen McNeil was elected in 2013, only one of those facilities has been replaced. And overall, funding for long-term care has gone down.
For the last seven years, there haven’t been any new nursing home beds opened under the current Liberal government.
When we talk about long-term care and this pandemic, the numbers can get overwhelming. And the actual people at the centre of this story risk becoming just empty statistics. But we want to tell you about some of the actual people who died in Northwood, because their lives are important, too. Not just where they died or what killed them, we want to mourn some of them as best we can, especially now as this virus has changed how we can do that.
Paul Sullivan worked as an insurance salesman. But he was the kind of guy whose clients quickly became his friends. He loved to build things, like hockey rinks in his backyard. And he stayed married to his wife Irenaeus for 60 years. He died in Northwood, without his family able to be by his side.
Gerald Jackson’s family had known tragedy before. His father had survived the Halifax Explosion, but it killed 46 of his family members. He was a cook in the navy for two decades, and then spent some time at Sears and then working for a museum. He lived out west in Victoria since the 1970s, but when he developed dementia, his daughters brought him back to Nova Scotia. They were able to speak to him on an iPad one last time on the day he died in Northwood.
Bunny Tanner’s children remember her as a strong and strict mother, in a good way. But she really came into her own as a grandmother. She’d survived a bout with lung cancer in 2019 and she loved her private room in Northwood. But her last days in there were terrifying. She’d call her daughter begging to be able to get out of the facility, to go anywhere else. But she died on May 1st.
COVID-19 took Gena Hemsworth that same day. She was afraid of flying, but loved sports cars. And she worked as a secretary at the Halifax Regional Vocational School for thirty years, where she put her exceptionally fast typing abilities to use. When she was away from home, Gena would call her house so she could talk to her cats. She cared for her partner Neil Mosher through ALS, and she died at Northwood a little over a month after she’d arrived.
Hilda Weber’s husband left her alone with three young children. But she worked multiple jobs to make sure they’d get by. When times were really bad, her children would split a can of soup, while she ate nothing.
Derrick Carvey loved taking drives with his dad and going on boat cruises. And he was a big Michael Jackson fan. And because of his cerebral palsy, the doctors said he wouldn’t live past thirty. But at 37, he was still alive and at Northwood, where his 98-year-old grandmother also lived. They once did a fashion show together. But both of them came down with COVID-19. His grandmother fought off the virus, but Derrick died. His father was in the room with him. He played him Michael Jackson before his son’s breathing stopped.
Thelma Coward-Ince was the first black naval reservist in Canadian history. She eventually became secretary to the chief of staff to the admiral of the Canadian navy. And she did all of that while raising two kids on her own. One of them, Tony Ince, is today a cabinet minister in the Nova Scotian government. Tony was on his way to visit his mother again when he got the call. She had died just before he could arrive.
And then there’s Evelina Upshaw. She ran a hot lunch program for over three decades in the North End of Halifax. A few years ago, some young people from her neighbourhood made a short documentary about her. They called her a hero. Here she is speaking in that video.
I said, well, if I can do something to help those mothers, that they can go off to work feeling free, that the children are going to get a hot noon meal, then that was what I wanted to do. So that’s what I did for 33 years.
On her last day, one of her daughters, covered in protective equipment, climbed into bed with her. She was able to be there for her mother at the very end.
For the last three years, Northwood has been asking the provincial government for money so that fewer people had to live in double or triple rooms.
The board of Governors was well aware of the potential for a flu outbreak or a pandemic because they had petitioned the provincial government three separate years for money to expand. They wanted to build a few stories higher, keep the same number of beds, but create more single rooms. And the… And the reason they asked for this money was because they wanted to prevent infection. The provincial government never said no. But they never said yes. And nothing got done for three years.
Premier Stephen McNeil has so far resisted the calls for a public inquiry. Some family members of the people who have died at Northwood are publicly blaming both the facility and the government. But we won’t know exactly who or what is to blame unless there are independent investigations.
For now, Nova Scotians just want the deaths to stop.
I’m not sure what people want is to lay blame and finger-point. They want to fix the problem before the next wave of COVID hits. What we’ve seen, mostly, is praise and compassion for Northwood workers. You see that in the obituaries. You see that in terms of letters to the editor. In fact, people honk their horns as they pass by Northwood to support the workers. Donations of food and gifts continue to flow
People volunteering to speak with Northwood residents over the phone and keep them company has doubled. The local mosque has been donating meals to workers. Medical students have been signing up to help in the facility. After all the tragedies of the last two months, Nova Scotians are still finding ways to come together.
That’s your episode of Commons for the week. If you want to support us, click on the link in your show notes or go to commonspodcast.com
This episode relied on reporting done by Jennifer Henderson and Tim Bousquet at the Halifax Examiner, Cassidy Chisolm, Taryn Grant, Elizabeth Chiu and Alex Cooke at CBC Nova Scotia, John McPhee and Jim Vibert at the Chronicle Herald, Global News and many others. Right now CBC Nova Scotia is putting together profiles of as many of the Northwood residents who have died as they can. I recommend you go give those a read.
If you want to get in touch with us, you can tweet at us at @COMMONSpod. You can also email me, Arshy@canadalandshow.com
This episode was produced by me and Jordan Cornish, with additional production by Tiffany Lam. Our managing editor is Andréa Schmidt, and our music is by Nathan Burley.
If you like what we do, please help us make this show. Click on the link in your show notes or go to commonspodcast.com