#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report
Marguerite Blais’ highly anticipated testimony at coroner’s inquest leaves many
By Raquel Fletcher
Seniors minister Marguerite Blais says she came out of retirement and returned to politics “to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people and caregivers.” That’s what she told the coroner Friday in Trois-Rivières during her highly anticipated testimony at the inquest into the deaths in Quebec’s long-term care homes during the first wave of COVID-19.
Blais was one of the last witnesses to appear at the inquest. The minister is currently on sick leave for burnout, a result, she explained, of the emotional toll of the pandemic: “I was supposed to come testify in November, but I was much too emotional,” she said.
“To see thousands of people die. You cannot be indifferent to that,” she explained at the beginning of her presentation.
Blais contradicted testimony by former health minister Danielle McCann that Quebec began preparing in early 2020 for infections to be more serious in the older population. Despite the fact the health ministry issued a letter to long-term care establishments on January 28, 2020 warning their CEOs to prepare for a pandemic, Blais insisted on several occasions that the province didn’t know how acutely the coronavirus would affect elderly people. She explained she went on vacation during the 2020 March break, and it wasn’t until she returned to Quebec on March 9 that she was informed of the virus’ severity in long-term care homes.
Date a sticking point
The date when the government says it started preparing for the virus in CHSLDs has been a sticking point for coroner Géhane Kamel throughout the inquest. On Friday, Kamel reiterated that she had no written evidence indicating that the health ministry gave a directive to long-term care homes to prepare a pandemic plan before March 10, 2020. Kamel asked Blais if it surprised her that this directive didn’t come earlier.
“No one believed that it was going to touch (seniors) homes the way it touched (seniors) homes,” Blais replied.
(Premier François Legault used a similar line during an appearance Sunday night on Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle. He said the province didn’t know how badly COVID-19 was going to hit CHSLDs before March 2020 because it thought the main risk was in hospitals.)
But Kamel pushed back on this, noting that during the 2009 H1N1 virus, a plan was put in place weeks, possibly even months in advance. She added the government could have adapted that plan for COVID-19.
“It was a good starting base. I’m surprised that in January it was said to the civil security committee, ‘We’re working on the actions to take, we’re starting this reflection,’ and yet, the ministry (didn’t) send the directive to the establishments until March 10 to put the plan into effect,” Kamel said.
Blais offered up two explanations. She said seniors living in seniors’ homes now increasingly need higher levels of care compared to 10 or 15 years ago. Eighty percent of residents have major neurocognitive disorders, chronic illnesses, mental health issues and loss of autonomy. Despite the fact that residents are more vulnerable, these homes have paradoxically become the “great forgotten of the system.”
“I came back to politics to change that and I didn’t have time. That’s the reality,” she testified emotionally.
Blais added that protocols for the control and prevention of influenza and other contagions have been in place since 2009 in long-term care homes, so they are used to managing outbreaks.
Lack of PPE
“That really surprised me,” said Jean-Pierre Daubois, whose mother died in care in April 2020. Daubois is one of the family members who helped launch the coroner’s inquest.
If CHSLDs were really used to handling outbreaks, he said, it doesn’t make sense they would be short on personal protective equipment (PPE) as was the case at his mother’s home in Laval where “employees were crying out for masks. There were none.”
Blais confirmed the government struggled to procure enough PPE for long-term care homes and that on April 3, 2020, they almost ran out completely.
“We can never, ever again be at the mercy of international purchases,” Blais said. “We have to ensure that locally, we can produce enough material to provide for everyone.”
“But there was a certain preparation that was lacking,” Kamel countered, noting that in the H1N1 preparation plan, establishments had to ensure they had more PPE on hand than usual and 30 percent more staff.
“I sound annoying with my questions,” Kamel said at one point. “But I want to be able to look the families in their eyes (once I finish my report).”
Daubois categorized Blais’ testimony as “outrageous” and said the minister was not forthcoming in her responses. “Throughout this inquiry, everybody sends the responsibility…to some other level, to some other person in this huge structure. It is absolutely disgusting at the end of the day and today is the cherry on the cake with Marguerite Blais.”
The opposition Liberal Party is asking for Blais’ resignation.