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Sunday, January 16

Hanes: Blais testimony in CHSLD investigation raises as many questions as it answers

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The version of events presented by the minister responsible for the elderly makes one wonder when nursing homes first appeared on the radar of those managing the response to the pandemic in Quebec.

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Old Quebecers may be Marguerite Blais’s passion and the reason she got into politics.

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But as a new coronavirus particularly lethal to frail older people was poised to invade Quebec’s public nursing homes in the spring of 2020, the minister responsible for them was neither clueless nor empowered to protect them.

This is clear from the long-awaited testimony provided Friday by Blais. She came off exhaustion sick leave to fill in some of the missing “puzzle pieces” that coroner Géhane Kamel is seeking as part of her investigation to understand how 4,000 elderly residents ended up dying in nursing homes during the first wave of the coronavirus. pandemic.

Kamel said it was “inconceivable” that he could conclude his investigation without Blais’s input.

And indeed, Blais’s version of events raises new questions about when older people living in nursing homes first appeared on the radar of emergency managers.

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In earlier testimony, former health minister Danielle McCann and former Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said Quebec began making preparations for CHSLDs in January. The only evidence of this was a loosely worded notice from the deputy director of civil security at the Ministry of Health at the end of that month.

According to Blais’s account, the first time he heard about the vulnerability of the elderly was on March 9, 2020, just after spring break, when COVID-19 arrived in Quebec and caused a lockdown in a matter of days. . It was mentioned in a World Health Organization notice presented at a crisis cell meeting with Prime Minister François Legault y Arruda. But Blais was not present. He was returning from a vacation in Florida.

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When presented with another document prepared for Info-Santé dated February 7 that mentioned that COVID-19 could be potentially harmful to older people, Blais said he had not seen it.

In any case, Blais said he concluded that nursing homes had experience handling outbreaks of the flu or gastroenteritis, so they would be fine in the face of this new virus.

There was a lack of stretcher bearers in long-term care before the pandemic and the situation worsened as workers began to get sick, he admitted. Blais bristled when asked if, in hindsight, a directive barring visitors and caretakers from entering the facility was a “mistake.”

Issuing the order “broke his heart,” he said, but it was done on the advice of public health experts in an effort to stop transmission.

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“I don’t like the term ‘mistake,'” Blais said. “When I say it should never happen again, that’s your answer.”

Kamel intervened.

“It’s a bit ironic. … At the same time, we told caregivers to stay away … staff were short and they were going back and forth between different CHSLDs,” she said. “That’s what hurts. If you’re someone who lost a family member, you’re thinking, ‘You didn’t take care of my family member and you didn’t let me take care of my family member.’ I think that’s the shock.”

Blais’s testimony also raised new questions about who knew what and when about the unfolding disaster at Herron, a private nursing home in Dorval where staffing levels were so critically low that residents were left unfed, dehydrated and diapered. dirty. Aaron Derfel of the Montreal Gazette first reported on the catastrophe on April 10, 2020, sounding the alarm about the broader crisis unfolding across the province.

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The Herron was eventually taken under guardianship by the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. Blais was asked about phone calls and emails alerting his office to unacceptable conditions since March 29. He claimed to be unaware until the Gazette report was published.

Kamel noted that this was “surprising” given that Derfel was calling for comment.

Blais also became defensive when asked how and when he first became aware that older CHSLD residents were suffering and dying from a lack of basic care. At first he dodged the question by reiterating the importance of the investigation and of shedding light on everything that happened in the spring of 2020. He had to be reminded that this is precisely why he was on the stand.

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“I can’t give you such an answer. It’s not white, it’s not black,” he finally said. “Information was coming from everywhere. I can’t say yes, I can’t say no. There was a lack of staff and people did not receive adequate attention.”

By his own words, it now appears that Blais was out of the loop when COVID-19 loomed on Quebec’s doorstep and was not involved in day-to-day decision-making until older people were tragically exposed as the blind spot in the reactions of the government. .

Kamel’s research is indeed crucial to getting answers for families who have so callously lost loved ones in long-term care homes. But discrepancies between the accounts of various top officials warrant a broader public investigation to get to the bottom of Quebec’s pandemic response.

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