Regulator working with health unit to address deadly Amberwood outbreak

·4 min read

Sudbury's NDP MPPs are still calling for government oversight into the COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed the lives of five residents at Amberwood Suites in Sudbury.

This, despite the fact the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility said the regulator responsible for licensing retirement homes in Ontario is working with Public Health Sudbury and Districts to address the situation.

However, Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas said that trust has been broken and she would like to see more concrete action on behalf of the residents of the home.

“As much as the residents love the staff and the retirement home, we want an independent third party to go in and reassure them that everything is being done to keep them safe,” said Gelinas, the NDP's Health critic.

“The residents are afraid for their lives. Those with underlying health conditions know that if they get the virus, their chances of making it through are not good. They are scared.”

Public Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the retirement home on Jan. 5 after a positive case was reported in a resident.

To date, there have been 38 cases of COVID-19 associated with the outbreak among 33 residents and five staff members.

Gelinas and Sudbury MPP Jamie West banded together last week to reach out to the media to draw attention to the issue, frustrated that so many of their letters to the Ford government go unanswered.

“When you send a letter to the ministry, it ends up being out of sight, out of mind. They can choose to respond, or they can choose not to respond for a month or more,” said West.

“Because of the severity of the outbreak and the number of deaths so far, we decided to go through the media instead.”

West said that families are worried about their loved ones and they were not provided sufficient information about the outbreak as it was emerging.

The MPPs also called on the Ford government to reverse a previous Liberal decision to allow retirement homes to self-regulate, something that Gelinas opposed in 2010.

“Retirement home residents are often frail seniors who deserve government oversight, accountability and protection,” said Gelinas in the release.

“If this was a long-term care home the outbreak would have been on the government website at least, but because it is a retirement home, worried loved ones waited for days to get any information. They got more information from the local media than Autumnwood Mature Lifestyle, the company that owns Amberwood Suites.”

Retirement homes in Ontario are privately owned, unlike long-term care facilities, which are regulated by the government. They answer to the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority (RHRA).

“I voted against the Retirement Home Act because you cannot give a bunch of for-profit corporations the responsibility to self-govern. If somebody tries to make a complaint to the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority, the complaint mechanism is paid for and handled by the industry itself,” said Gelinas.

“If a resident makes a complaint, it puts them in jeopardy with the owner of the business. Right now, the only protection residents have is with the Landlord and Tenant Board, and your landlord can evict you.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility said the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority is working with Public Health “to ensure Amberwood has the tools required to address the outbreak.”

“COVID-19 has taken a terrible roll on our retirement homes. There is no question that community spread continues to post a serious threat to our most vulnerable residents, as well as the staff that are working tirelessly to keep them safe,” said the ministry.

“Ensuring that all residents and workers in retirement homes receive a COVID-19 vaccine is our government’s top priority as we continue with the roll-out of our vaccination distribution plan.”

The Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority has a COVID-19 reporting mechanism on its website that lists retirement homes with active and resolved outbreaks, but it does not provide specific data on the number of active cases per retirement home.

According to the authority's data, there are more than 770 licensed retirement homes in Ontario and as of Jan. 18, 16 per cent of retirement homes in the province have reported an active outbreak.

Despite the call for government oversight, Gelinas recognized the efforts of the staff at Amberwood Suites during the outbreak.

“Residents know that staff are working hard to keep them safe. Some are working 18 hours a day, and some are sleeping at the residence,” she said.

“They are doing their best. We just want to make sure that the residents are reassured that we are doing everything possible.”

Multiple attempts were made to contact Autumnwood Mature Lifestyle, the company that owns The Amberwood Suites in Sudbury, but requests for an interview were declined.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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Twitter: @SudburyStar

Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star