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Province to conduct review of COVID-19 deaths at Northwood nursing home

Several residents at Northwood's Halifax facility have died from COVID-19. Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
The COVID-19 virus claimed the lives of 53 residents at Northwood nursing home in Halifax. The province announced details of a review of the situation on Tuesday. - Ryan Taplin / File

The Nova Scotia government unveiled details of its review of the COVID-19 death toll at Northwood nursing home. 

Of the 63 people to have died from the coronavirus in Nova Scotia, 53 of the deaths have been at the Halifax long-term care facility.

The $80,000 review will be conducted by infectious disease consultant Dr. Chris Lata, who is also an internal medicine specialist at Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney, and former British Columbia associate deputy minister of health Lynn Stevenson. 

“They will analyze the outbreak and the response to determine what factors contributed to the spread of COVID-19 at Northwood,” the province said in a news release Tuesday. 

The Northwood review is being done under the Quality-improvement Information Protection Act,  which means the province can publicly release only the recommendations that come out of the panel’s investigation, not details of the investigation itself. 

As well, the recommendations will not be binding, health officials told reporters in a technical briefing Tuesday morning, but the province will make every effort to address the recommendations and use them to prepare for a possible second wave of COVID-19. 

The recommendations will be delivered to the minister by Sept. 15 and will be made public after the review period. The panel has already started its work. 

The quality-improvement review was considered the best approach to get the investigators to work as soon as possible, Health Minister Randy Delorey said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. 

As for only making the recommendations public, Delorey said the quality-improvement legislation aims to protect personal health information and also ensures “whistelblower” type protection for people who provide information to the investigators. 

“There are limitations in terms of the scope of information that can be made public and again the focal point here is the recommendations because those are the recommendations that will lead us to make changes and improvements to our long-term care sector, to help us avoid and minimize infections from COVID and potentially other diseases in the future,” Delorey said. 

Preparedness and response

The panel will consider: 

  • whether the preparedness for and response to COVID-19 infections were appropriate and timely during each stage of the outbreak, as revealed by interviews with staff, physicians, administrators and others
  • staff scheduling practices and processes. (The often-raised question of whether staffing levels aren’t adequate in long-term-care may be part of that question but that will be up to the review panel, Health Department officials said at the technical briefing.)  
  • Best practices in effectively controlling and preventing the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in long-term care settings will also be reviewed. 

The government will also do a separate, internal review of broader infection prevention and control within the long-term care sector, the news release said.  It will consider overall infection prevention and control practices in long-term care facilities and review actions taken during the first wave of COVID-19.

Both reviews will make recommendations to help avoid or contain future outbreaks. A second wave of COVID-19 is expected to occur, possibly in the fall, so it’s hoped these recommendations will be implemented in time to prevent the disastrous death toll experienced at Northwood the first time around. 

Health Minister Randy Delorey announces a review of the 53 COVID-19 deaths at Northwood nursing home in Halifax on Tuesday. - Communications Nova Scotia
Health Minister Randy Delorey announces a review of the 53 COVID-19 deaths at Northwood nursing home in Halifax on Tuesday. - Communications Nova Scotia

Calls for public inquiry

In a news release Tuesday, Nova Scotia NDP Leader Garry Burrill said the province's review plan falls short of what Northwood families have been calling for. 

"A full, transparent public inquiry into shared rooms and staffing in long-term care is critical if we are to learn from this preventable tragedy," Burrill said. "A speedy review without access to full findings and root causes does not do justice to the level of information that families deserve."   

Burrill said the problems plaguing long-term care have been known for some time and the Liberals have yet to say what resources they will allocate to any recommendations from the review. 

"It was clear before the pandemic that a lack of adequate investment was undermining the quality of care. Every resident of a long term care facility needs to have their own room, and we need to have enough staff to care for residents. The Liberals could start on this today."

The Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives have said anything less than a public inquiry would be an injustice to the loved ones of the people who died at Northwood, and to the staff and residents who were affected. 

“We were really hoping for a process that could provide Nova Scotians with some confidence that any problems would be identified and any issues would be identified and therefore confidence that they would be addressed,” Houston said in an interview after the announcement. “And in my mind, that’s a public inquiry, it’s the most open process, it’s the most transparent process. . . . 

“What a review equals is, it’s essentially an opportunity for the government to control the narrative. . . . What that means is that we’ll never see the full report, we’ll never see as Nova Scotians the findings, unless those findings lead to the recommendations.” 

At the technical briefing, provincial officials said there are no legal barriers to the province conducting a public inquiry or a fatality inquiry after the quality-improvement review is complete.


Coalition: Review too narrow

The deaths at Northwood sparked a proposed class action in early June, alleging Northwood breached its legal obligations to its residents "due to inaction and inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Nova Scotia Health Coalition expressed disappointment in the way the province will conduct the Northwood investigation. 

“Fifty-three people died at Northwood and the public deserves to know the uncensored truth about what happened. Lives are at stake,” said Chris Parsons, provincial co-ordinator for the coalition and a former frontline worker at Northwood Manor.

“It should not be up to the Minister or the Premier’s office to determine what the public can and cannot know about this tragedy.”

The coalition also criticized the scope of the review as too narrow. 

“The terms of reference focus too heavily on the actions of staff and leadership at Northwood. Given the imminent second wave of COVID-19 and the broader failings of our long-term care system that the disease has revealed, it's clear that we need a review of the system as a whole, to find out what worked and what did not work throughout the province.”

In the Health Department news release earlier Tuesday, Lata said the investigation will help identify possible areas of improvement and the safety factors that may prevent serious outcomes at long-term care facilities. 

"The long-term care system and its safe and efficient function is critical to serving our elderly population and to the overall delivery of health care."

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