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June 10th 2020 - Study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Senator Poirier: Thank you to all three witnesses and for all the information you have shared. We greatly appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.

My question is for the Canadian Association for Long Term Care, Ms. Hall. In a news release on June 4, you said Canada was not prepared for this pandemic. It’s been difficult to watch how our long-term care was hit.

In your opinion, was the advice and the guidelines given by the government and the Public Health Agency of Canada inadequate to respond to the pandemic?

Ms. Hall: Thank you. Referencing the experience of many of our members, what was often noted was the timeline was an issue — when information was given, when directives were put out, and when they had full access to PPE, and the ability to understand and implement those precautions. Very early on there was a disconnect that happened.

The other point that I’ll reference is that the reality of what was being advised simply wasn’t possible on the ground. When we talk about things like social distancing during meal time, for example, that can be extremely challenging, especially with the older infrastructure. So that created a mix of circumstances that were incredibly difficult.

From the beginning of the outbreak to what we look at now — our understanding of asymptomatic transmission, our understanding and the list of symptoms that we identify related to COVID — certainly our knowledge has grown significantly. Early on, those were all challenges that I think contributed to the outbreaks in these homes.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. My second question is also for you, Ms. Hall.

Dr. Theresa Tam said last week that an explosive wave of cases is a distinct possibility with a second wave. Has Dr. Tam and the government presented plans and adjustments for the second wave?

Ms. Hall: I know with each province there are also provincial directives being given. Everyone is continuing to focus on the cohorting plan, prevention steps and staff screening.

As time moves on, with the funding being often very limited for long-term care facilities, the burden of the responsibility for the resources that are needed to purchase the PPE — and we see many examples of overinflated pricing and price-gouging related to that — in addition to ongoing challenges with access, it has created a circumstance where everyone is doing absolutely their best.

I think everyone has a much stronger understanding today than back in early March, but these challenges are still there. I know there are steps being taken by the federal government as it relates to PPE supply in Canada, and certainly at the provincial level, planning is continuing right across the country, but there still are these unspoken challenges about the cohorting and making sure that we’ve done everything that we can.

As far as staffing numbers, that continues to be a challenge and something that will require much longer-term planning.

Senator Poirier: On April 8, the Public Health Agency of Canada released guidelines for infection prevention and control of COVID-19 in long-term care homes. That was almost a month after the outbreak started in Canada. In your opinion, should these guidelines have been part of the pandemic plan before the outbreak and not a month after? How long did it take to implement the screening guidelines?

Ms. Hall: Yes, it was a month, and that did create a delay in response. I think individual homes across the country, and provincially, organizations were certainly watching what was happening globally and were doing their best to kind of create a robust response for their own individual homes, exploring and trying to understand screening measures, but they were relying on the directives coming from public health nationally and provincially to make sure that they were following the trends that they were identifying and the timelines, so we would know when to put these certain measures in place.

There was a delay. If those guidelines or directives could have been given earlier, it would have allowed for more robust screening measures to be put in place much sooner.

Senator Poirier: Thank you.

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Senator Poirier: Thank you to the witnesses for being here and for your excellent presentations.

My first question is for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, Ms. Lennox. I come from a rural area in New Brunswick. Seniors in the rural areas have been hit differently than many seniors in urban areas, specifically in everyday things that we don’t sometimes think about, for example, banking needs. Right now, our local banks have closed down because of COVID-19. For seniors, a lot of them over 80 years old, we are realizing they don’t use credit cards or debit. They’re still into the cash system. Going to a debit machine is not something they would do; nor is online banking.

Quite a few who reached out to me were surprised by the lack of services. They would have to drive over an hour to access services in the city. There is no bus or taxi service in rural New Brunswick. There are many issues happening there, different than if you were living in the city of Ottawa, where there would be multiple branches and things like that.

In your opinion, what actions, if any, can the federal government take to better support seniors in rural and remote areas, who don’t have access to services in the same way as others?

Ms. Lennox: Thank you for your question. I think I caught part of it.

We have chapters in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and we’ve heard similar concerns raised. Part of the issue is that there aren’t a lot of services available for people in rural communities. This goes back to what I was talking about in my introduction around an increase in the cost of living associated with COVID, and a number of programs that have shut down as a result of COVID-19. These are things that have had a direct impact on seniors.

I think there’s a misconception that seniors haven’t been impacted by COVID-19. In fact, many have been directly impacted. As you say, many banks and tax preparation services have shut down, which people relied on, particularly at this time. Seniors have lost access to a number of food banks as well. It has been a real struggle. We’ve certainly heard similar stories from our own members, that they’ve struggled.

Senator Poirier: In your opinion, has the government put in place the needed programs and financial aid to ensure that our low-income seniors, in both remote and urban areas, are protected from the second wave that everybody is saying will probably come?

Ms. Lennox: No. I think the second wave is a real concern for a lot of our members. Many are concerned that, with the second wave, we could see a number of programs similarly either not reopen or shut down again.

Many of our members were welcoming of the OAS and GIS top-up but felt it should be recurring. Many felt they would be the last to be released from physical distancing restrictions. So I think more can certainly be done.

Senator Poirier: Do you feel that the government should have a little bit more say in what should and should not be shut down, or what is essential and not essential?

Ms. Lennox: I think the government has a role to play in working collaboratively with the provinces to come to that determination.

Senator Poirier: I have a question for CanAge. In a recent article you said that seniors are facing financial insecurity. The government’s response is a one-time payment, and two months after its announcement, people are still waiting for it. The Prime Minister said the economy is frozen, yet he moves ever so slowly to help seniors in this frozen economy that he’s talking about.

After the one-time payment that is given in July, do you feel that low-income seniors can continue to survive with no further financial aid from the federal government? My question is to CanAge, Ms. Tamblyn Watts.

Ms. Tamblyn Watts: The answer is no, older adults are not adequately supported. A one-time payment is welcome, but they’ve been waiting for an OAS top-up as well, and that has not yet been coming. We know that older people, and particularly rural older people, who may already be experiencing intersectional poverty and marginalization, are the hardest hit. The second wave is not going to come as a theory; it is already going to be a key issue.

I wonder if I could follow up on the question you asked my colleague. In the area of rural banking, we need to explore the notions of open banking; banking through Canada Post; increased use of direct deposits and automatic payments; and, above all, as we move forward in the next two years, to explore automatic tax implications. We know that older people are having problems preparing their taxes, yet tax preparation is the gateway to benefits. We should be looking to align with other OECD countries by having an opt-out of automatic tax preparation as opposed to putting the onus on people who may be increasingly in need and marginalized to do their own taxes.

Senator Poirier: Thank you very much.

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