Police are investigating after the operator of a Courtice, Ont., private retirement home removed door handles from a “small number” of suites of residents who had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.
On Saturday, Const. George Tudos, spokesperson for Durham Regional Police, said police were made aware of the situation at White Cliffe Terrace Retirement Residence on Friday afternoon after someone came forward. Courtice is about 60 kilometres east of Toronto.
Verve Senior Living, the company which operates the home, said in a statement on Friday that a “small number” of resident suite door handles were removed in the home’s assisted living section.
“It was a violation of our protocols and practices. As soon as we became aware of the incident, all residents’ door handles were immediately reinstalled,” David Bird, president and CEO of Verve Senior Living, said in the statement.
Bird said the home’s general manager was immediately placed on leave once the company learned of the incident.
“There is absolutely no excuse to remove door handles — ever. We never lock in or prevent the free movement of our residents,” Bird said.
Police declined to say why they are investigating the home. Tudos said police will determine whether any crimes had been committed and could then consider laying charges.
Move to prevent COVID-19 patients from wandering: whistleblower
The incident was brought to light in an exclusive report from CityNews, which cited information from an anonymous employee.
According to CityNews, the employee said a manager at the retirement home ordered maintenance staff to remove door handles on some residents’ suites to prevent COVID-19 positive residents from moving freely around the facility.
The whistleblower told CityNews the handles were off the doors for several days, trapping residents in their rooms, until a head office employee discovered the situation and complained.
As of Saturday, CBC News has not been able to corroborate the employee’s allegations independently.
According to Durham Region’s website, the home had declared an outbreak on Jan. 15, but it was declared over on Feb. 4.
Bird, for his part, said if a resident was experiencing cognitive impairment and did not fully understand the measures in place to help combat the spread of COVID-19, other protocols would be put in place, such as wander strips, localized safety alarms and stop signs. These measures would stop a wandering resident, he said.
Ministry calls action ‘completely unacceptable’
A resident at White Cliffe Terrace Retirement Residence, whose identity CBC Toronto has agreed to conceal for fear of reprisal, said he was shocked, frustrated and disturbed to hear of the news.
He said residents with dementia live on the floor where the door handles were removed and were already protected from wandering.
“I think [the home was] trying to do the best they could … it was just a really bad decision they made,” he said.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Ontario’s Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility said this kind of action is “completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
“We have reached out to the Retirement Home Regulatory Authority (RHRA) to ensure a thorough investigation is conducted,” the ministry said.
Clarington, Ont., Mayor Adrian Foster said he has friends whose family members live in the building and said it’s unsettling to hear that residents were trapped. Clarington is comprised of four urban centres, including Courtice.
“If one of the residents needed to get out of their room, they wouldn’t be able to do that,” Foster told CBC Toronto. “That’s pretty fundamental and probably the most basic of the concerns.”
Foster said fire and local health unit officials are also investigating.
Union calls for more protection for whistleblowers
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents some workers at the home, said its members have said someone who lives on the floor where the door handles were removed had tested positive for COVID-19, but the members couldn’t say when.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, the union said: “This [situation] is why meaningful whistleblower legislation is absolutely necessary to protect front-line health care staff who bravely speak out about low staffing, inadequate care levels, abuse and health and safety infractions.”
Stella Yeadon, spokesperson for CUPE, said it is extremely difficult for workers to sound an alarm about such a situation when they need to keep their jobs. She said provincial oversight for retirement homes is lacking and staffing levels are extremely low.
“These issues are compounded for staff by the fear generated by a culture that relies heavily on disciplinary measures.”