MONTREAL — Newly released recordings of phone calls to a Quebec government health line from March 2020 reveal how desperate the owners of a long-term care home were as COVID-19 struck their establishment during the pandemic’s first wave.
The two calls from the owners of Residence Herron, where 47 people died in spring of 2020, were entered into evidence for the coroner’s inquest investigating COVID-19 deaths in the province’s care homes.
In the recordings first published Wednesday by La Presse, a panicked Samantha Chowieri and her husband call twice to the non-urgent health line after failing to get help from authorities.
On the morning of March 28, Chowieri explains to the nurse in a roughly 12-minute call that she is the owner of a long-term care home with at-risk users and cannot find help despite calling every available number.
“Everyone is hanging up on us, telling us they can’t help us,” Chowieri says. “We really need support from the CIUSSS (regional health board), I don’t know if there is anyone you can communicate with.”
The next afternoon, Chowieri and her husband place a 14-minute call. Her husband describes an urgent situation, saying they need COVID-19 testing on-site and “residents need to drink and eat.”
“We are out of breath. I have a lack of staff,” he tells the nurse. Later Chowieri tells the nurse she’s concerned that “it’s going to be really serious, our situation, and I don’t think anyone understands.”
The coroner has heard that a few managers from the health board arrived to help at Herron on the evening of March 29, finding a catastrophic situation at the residence. Coroner Géhane Kamel also heard from witnesses that there was tension between health officials and Herron management in the days after the health agency took over the privately owned facility.
On Tuesday, Radio-Canada reported on an email tabled into evidence at the inquiry revealing that cabinet ministers knew about the dire situation at the Herron care home at least 10 days earlier than they had previously acknowledged.
The March 29, 2020, email from the regional health authority was labelled “URGENT” and warned the chief of staff to Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais that there were “almost no more staff” to care for Herron’s 154 residents.
The email was reportedly forwarded to Blais that night, while the health minister at the time, Danielle McCann, received a briefing on the situation the next day. However, both Blais and McCann have stated publicly that they only learned about conditions at the Herron care home from reading a news article in the Montreal Gazette.
During Wednesday’s question period, Premier François Legault maintained the email was clear that the regional health board was handling the situation at Herron, adding that he is now awaiting the coroner’s findings.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, renewed calls for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parti Québécois house leader Joël Arseneau said it is clear from the recordings the administrators of Herron were left on their own.
“Once again today there is a question of ministerial responsibility, there is a question of accountability that has not yet been clarified,” Arseneau told reporters. “It proves to us we need a public and independent investigation into the entire management of the pandemic, and particularly in the first wave.”
Québec solidaire Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called the recordings disturbing.
“How come someone in charge of an establishment that is supposed to care for elderly people … goes to the emergency public line to get staff to take care of the residents?” he asked at a news conference, saying ultimately it was the government’s responsibility.
“Mr. Legault cannot take credit for what goes well and throw people under the bus for what goes wrong,” Nadeau-Dubois said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press