Army needs to rescue personal care homes, says brother of woman who died at Maples

James Ottenbreit says the time has come to call in the military to take charge of Manitoba personal care homes battling COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The loss of his 69-year-old sister, Donna O’Connell, came as a shock to his family who were told she was showing a few symptoms of COVID-19 but was otherwise OK.

“I’m just beside myself,” he said. “My sister passed away in the middle of the night in a dark room by herself.” 

O’Connell — a well-known taxi driver who had moved into a care home following a head injury — died just after midnight on Wednesday.

Donna O’Connell was well known in the North End where she used to drive a taxi cab for Duffy’s. She died Wednesday at age 69. (Submitted by Jim Ottenbreit)

Ottenbreit says he’s speaking out because immediate action must be taken to avoid more deaths.

“The army has to come in because they have doctors, they have nurses, they have control,” he said.

He doesn’t understand why the government hasn’t called in the army sooner. 

“The longer that the government sits and waits, the more people are going to be hurt by this,” Ottenbreit said. “More people are going to die.”

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said every option remains on the table but calling in the military might not be a solution to the care home crisis. He discussed this possibility with Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu last weekend. 

“Minister Hajdu has told me that they did try to activate military capability in some exceptional circumstances in Quebec and Ontario. And in her words, it didn’t go as planned,” said Friesen in a press conference after question period on Thursday. “And that didn’t mean that anyone wasn’t trying hard. It just meant that in actual implementation it proved difficult,”

Revera homes sites of largest and deadliest outbreaks

The personal care homes at the centre of the province’s largest and deadliest outbreaks are both owned by Ontario-based Revera, a for-profit company that counts Maples Long Term Care Home and Parkview Place among its assets.

The latest numbers show Maples has 120 resident COVID-19 infections and eight deaths; Parkview Place has 111 resident infections and 23 deaths. 

When asked why the government didn’t take more proactive measures to control the outbreaks at Maples and Parkview Place, Premier Brain Pallister responded, “that’s one of those 20/20 hindsight questions.”

“We’ve done our best to address proactively with preventative measures such as safety ads and so on, and restrictions when necessary, and those types of measures changing the behaviours of people to hopefully reduce the incidence of COVID,” said Pallister at a press conference Thursday.

WATCH | Jim Ottenbreit on the gravity of the situation in personal care homes:

James Ottenbreit says the time has come to call in the military to take charge of Manitoba personal care homes battling COVID-19 outbreaks. 2:17

O’Connell lived at both Revera homes. Ottenbreit moved her out of Parkview Place and into Maples earlier this year because of what he perceived to be staffing shortages in the downtown home. 

“I felt so great when I got out of Parkview, especially after hearing what was happening at Parkview,” said Ottenbreit. 

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), which funds and oversees the two care homes, says nursing and health-care aide staffing is currently being supplemented by the use of overtime and agency personnel, as well as qualified managers from Revera.

A full-time nurse practitioner has been placed at Parkview and one is planned to start next week at the Maples facility. 

A Canadian Red Cross van spotted outside of Maples Long Term Care Home on Thursday. Revera, the for-profit company that runs the home says staff from the Red Cross will be coming in to assist with meal deliveries and maintaining isolation of COVID positive residents. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The WRHA says it’s still in talks with the Canadian Red Cross to finalize the details of how the humanitarian agency will assist Parkview Place and Maples. 

“We have a team at the Maples today conducting an assessment of the facility,” said Canadian Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small.

“It is part of our work that is ongoing to determine what role we could play in helping out at care homes in Winnipeg,” Small said in a written statement. 

Friesen said the Red Cross will primarily focus on the Maples care home because “things are stabilizing when it comes to Parkview Place.” 

He said help from the Red Cross could arrive as early as next week.

General staff added

Revera did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but on Wednesday its spokesperson said several general staff have been added to Maples and Parkview Place to help with meals and social engagement. 

Agency nurses and security personnel are helping keep residents isolated in their rooms, said Larry Roberts, a spokesperson for Revera.

“All the Revera teams in Winnipeg are working very hard to provide compassionate care for the residents and we are doing everything we can to keep residents and staff safe from the pandemic,” Roberts said. 

Ottenbreit said he still wants answers from the Maples home as to why his family wasn’t notified of his sister’s declining state or why she was not taken to hospital.

He said he is considering legal action.

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