KITCHENER -- A Kitchener hospital is taking over the management of a long-term care home that has experienced one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the province.

The Ministry of Long-Term Care issued a mandatory management order on Tuesday for Forest Heights Revera.

It says St. Mary’s General Hospital will be temporarily taking over the management of the facility for the next 90 days, though the province can extend the order if necessary.

An outbreak was first declared at Forest Heights Revera on April 1.

Since then, 175 residents and 69 staff members have contracted the virus and another 51 people have died.

Forest Heights Revera accounts for 244 of the region’s 1,113 COVID-19 cases, and more than 40 per cent of the 114 deaths.

A health response team, made up of hospital, non-hospital and public health employees, was assembled in April to deal with the outbreak. As a result, 40 patients were moved to local hospitals.

The ministry confirmed last week that Forest Heights Revera was one of 13 long-term care homes listed as “red” under the province’s colour-coded system of classifying COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care - meaning it had a higher risk for spreading COVID-19.

An emergency order was also issued to allow the Ministry to appoint alternative management.

“The safety and well-being of residents and staff in long-term care have always been and will continue to be our number one priority,” says Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, the Minister of Long-Term Care in a release. “I am confident that the talented staff at St. Mary’s General Hospital and Forest Heights will work together to contain COVID-19 and stabilize the home.”

The hope is that a more rigorous management structure can stop the spread of COVID-19 and assist the home in a return to normal operations.

“The impact of COVID-19 has been incredibly challenging and heart-breaking for residents, families and staff at Forest Heights,” says Lee Fairclough, the President and CEO of St. Mary’s General Hospital. “We are committed to working closely with them to support and effectively manage the response to an outbreak that has proven very complex and difficult to control.”

The hospital says they’ll immediately bring in expertise and resources from across the healthcare system to develop a plan of action for Forest Heights.

Response from Region of Waterloo Public Health and Revera

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the Acting Medical Officer of Health for the Region of Waterloo, calls the province’s decision a “welcome development.”

“The Forest Heights outbreak has been very significant in terms of its size and complexity, and has proven challenging to bring under control,” she says. “This temporary management order will further assist to end the outbreak and return the facility to sustainable operations.”

Revera, the company that runs the long-term care home also issued a statement Tuesday.

It reads, in part: “The outbreak has shown signs of slowing and stabilizing, however we have had additional positive tests over the week. The outbreak has been complex and challenging to manage in an old home with ward-style rooms and shared bathrooms. The devastating effect of the pandemic has been emotionally and physically exhausting for the staff and the management team. With a singular focus to prevent further illness and loss of life, we welcome the Mandatory Management Order (MMO), which will provide some much-needed support for exhausted leaders at the site who have worked tireless under extremely stressful circumstances to try to stop the spread of this devastating virus.”

The statement goes on to say they are willing to work with the ministry and St. Mary’s General Hospital to protect residents. You can find Revera’s full statement here.

Family Reaction

Families of long-term care residents are also weighing in on the provincial order.

Tracy Rowley’s mother, 74-year-old Shirley Egerdeen, was a resident at Forest Heights during the outbreak. She says after Egerdeen tested positive for COVID-19, a doctor told her to stay in a room with three other residents.

“He said: ‘No, we’ve isolated her, we put the curtain around here.’ She was in the bed right beside the bathroom.”

Egerdeen died from the virus at the end of April.

Her family is happy that the province is stepping in to take over the management of the facility.

“I feel like there is finally going to be some form of justice for my mother because it wasn’t her time to pass yet.”

Rowley hopes other families with loved ones in Forest Heights will finally get the help they need to better fight the pandemic.

“Those people are going to have their moms, their dads, their uncles, their brothers, for a long time because someone else is going to be looking after this.”

Why did it take so long to step in?

The union that represents the more than 200 employees at Forest Heights says a key issue for its members has been the lack of personal protective equipment.

“Here we are, three months into this pandemic and we are still fighting to get basic supplies that are necessary to keep people safe,” says Unifor President Jerry Dias.

The union, which also represents BellMedia employees, is asking the provincial government to permanently take over management of the long-term care home.

Laura Mae Lindo, the MPP for Kitchener-Centre, is wondering why the province didn’t issue a management order sooner, saying she approached the minister several times with her concerns.

“I’m extremely surprised that it’s taken this long,” she says. “I was watching what was happening at Forest Heights and couldn’t understand why it took so long for them to intervene.”

The province says it has already appointed new management at seven different long-term care homes in Ontario, with Forest Heights Revera being the eighth one added to the list.

The government recently announced it will be launching an independent non-partisan commission into Ontario’s long-term care system in July.

- With reporting by Heather Senoran, Nicole Lampa, Tony Grace and Chase Banger