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Quebec delayed preparation for COVID-19 in care homes, leading to deaths: lawsuit

Health-care workers look out from a long-term care home in the Montreal suburb of Dorval, Que., on Saturday, April 11, 2020. A Montreal lawyer says Quebec's initial response to the risk of COVID-19 to long-term care residents was marked by improvisation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — The Quebec government's failure to follow its pandemic-response plan as the novel coronavirus started circulating in other parts of the world in early 2020 led to preventable deaths in long-term care, a Montreal lawyer argued Monday.

Patrick Martin-Ménard asked a judge to authorize a class-action lawsuit against the provincial government on behalf of all residents of public long-term care homes that experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in the first two waves of the pandemic, and on behalf of the families of those who died. 

By failing to implement an existing pandemic-response plan in early January 2020, the Quebec government and its health authorities breached their duty of care to the residents, Martin-Ménard told the Quebec Superior Court.

"There was a plan in place since 2006, a road map of what was supposed to be done to prepare the public health-care system for a pandemic, and this plan included a number of measures that could be put in place to protect vulnerable people," Martin-Ménard told reporters Monday.

"What we are alleging here is that if this plan had been activated, as it should have been in January 2020, we would probably have avoided the outbreaks that we have seen in (long-term care centres)."

More than 5,000 people died in Quebec's long-term care centres during the period covered by the proposed lawsuit — between March 2020 and March 2021. 

Quebec's pandemic-response plan, Martin-Ménard said, calls for the government to issue a pre-pandemic alert to health-care facilities when a new virus is confirmed to be spreading from animals to humans; that fact was known by Jan. 6, 2020, for COVID-19, but the province didn't issue the alert, he said.

The government didn't begin officially preparing for the pandemic's arrival until late February — two days before the first cases were detected in the province. As well, the plan calls for Quebec to implement infection prevent and control measures, and identify the most vulnerable residents.

Quebec's initial directives to the health-care system made no reference to long-term care centres and vulnerable people, Martin-Ménard said. There was no specific plan issued to the health system about protecting long-term care centres until the end of March, he said. That delay caused Quebec to miss its window to prepare, leading to disastrous consequences, Martin-Ménard argued.

"Once again, here we see that was set out in the plan was not implemented," he told the court.

Instead of launching the plan, he alleged, the government improvised, moving patients from hospitals to long-term care centres in an effort to free hospital beds. But those long-term care centres weren't prepared for the additional patients and couldn't properly care for residents after the government banned visits from family caregivers, Martin-Ménard said.

In one case, he said, a woman who depended on visits from her daughter to help her eat died shortly after those visits were banned.

The government limited the ability of long-term care patients to go to hospitals if they had COVID-19, but the province didn't consider whether long-term care centres had the capacity to treat those patients, he said.

"All of this had very significant consequences, not only for the people who got COVID-19, but also for the people who were severely affected by the deprivation of care that they had as a result," Martin-Ménard told reporters. 

Jean-Pierre Daubois, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, said his mother suffered from a lack of care. Anna José Maquet, 94, died at the Ste-Dorothée long-term care centre, in Laval, Que., in April 2020.

While Maquet had an age-related eye disorder and required help to move around, she was otherwise healthy, he said. Daubois said his mother choked while drinking water and within three hours was put on a respiratory distress protocol, which he said led to her death.

According to the lawsuit, at the time of Maquet's death, she was under the care of a nursing candidate who was not yet licensed and who allegedly provided treatments she was not qualified to administer. 

"We want the Quebec government to be held accountable for the non-preparation," Daubois told reporters at the Montreal courthouse. "There was gross incompetence on their part, we want this to change."

Martin-Ménard said the class action could include more than 10,000 people. The compensation being sought will depend on how many members are identified, he said, adding that it could be hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Quebec government lawyers declined to comment on the case Monday. Lawyers for Quebec's heath-care establishments are scheduled to make arguments on Thursday, and lawyers for the province's attorney general are to appear on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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