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“Significant tragedy” at Willingdon Care Centre as COVID outbreak claims at least 10 lives

Update: Fraser Health told Burnaby Beacon that as of October 18 there have been 80 COVID cases confirmed among residents of Willingdon Care Centre and 25 among staff. 13 residents have died. 

Willingdon Care Centre in Burnaby has become the site of the “most significant” COVID outbreak currently active in British Columbia.

The outbreak at the care home located on Grange St, nearby to Metrotown, was declared on September 27 when Fraser Health said one resident had tested positive for the virus.

By October 12—two weeks later—it had ballooned to at least 90 cases between residents and staff, according to a report from the BCCDC. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Thursday that at least 10 people have died.

But freelance journalist Salim Jiwa reported on Twitter that the number of cases had risen to at least 82 residents and 30 staff, with 12 deaths.

The care centre holds 95 beds, which means that as of October 12, 72% of residents at the home had contracted the virus. About 10% had died.

Vice president of public affairs at the BC Care Providers Association Mike Klassen said he’s been working closely with Willingdon Care Centre, which is a member of the association since the pandemic began.

“I’ve been extraordinarily impressed with the amount of work that they have done through the first few waves of the pandemic. This is the first time that they’ve been hit by COVID,” he said.

“And to have this extreme outbreak now is extremely deflating. And I would argue probably extremely avoidable too, had we had the booster shots sooner.”

Klassen wants BC to follow other provinces in Canada, like Ontario and Alberta, that have completed booster COVID vaccine programs for residents in long term care already. He’s concerned that if the province doesn’t act quickly, the tragic situation in Willingdon Care Centre could be echoed in other long term care facilities across BC.

“Without question—you’d be blind if you did not see what’s happening now. We’re seeing the growth happening. We’ve seen the Delta variant and these breakthrough cases that are starting to happen in our care homes,” he said.

“None of us want to repeat what we’ve already been through during the first two waves of the pandemic. We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure this worst-case scenario does not play out.”

Why did this outbreak grow so quickly?

A report from the office of BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie on COVID outbreaks in BC care homes, released October 6, said sites were four times more likely to experience a large outbreak if the first case was confirmed in a resident, rather than a staff member.

The report also found sites with shared rooms were more likely to experience a larger outbreak. At Willingdon, only 9 rooms are single-occupancy; the rest are either double- or multiple-occupancy.

Burnaby Beacon has asked Fraser Health for a breakdown of how many cases were confirmed in residents who lived in shared rooms.

The report recommended that shared rooms be eliminated from BC care homes entirely to prevent future outbreaks. 

The BC Seniors Advocate also called for the daily use of rapid tests on residents and staff during an active outbreak, combined with PCR tests as required. She noted that more than three-quarters of sites that tested residents reported positive COVID tests from asymptomatic residents.

When Fraser Health declared the outbreak at Willingdon, it said it had enacted enhanced control measures including restricted social visits, enhanced cleaning, and “additional testing and screening … to support monitoring of disease control.”

Klassen said he wasn’t aware of whether all residents and staff were tested for COVID after the first person tested positive. But he said the care home itself was extremely in favour of using rapid tests to screen asymptomatic people.

The Beacon has requested clarification from Fraser Health on whether additional testing at the site entailed rapid or asymptomatic testing of all residents and staff. 

Impacts on residents, families, and staff

The outbreak means for the past two weeks, residents haven’t been able to see their friends and family except for “essential visits”—meaning compassionate care visits including those at end of life, or visits paramount to a resident’s health and safety such as for eating assistance.

That’s just another one of the heartbreaks at Willingdon Care Centre right now. 

“We really fought so hard to try and allow families to keep those connections—in-person contact and slowly we were able to update the protocols to allow for people to come visit and hold hands and hug and all the rest of it,” said Klassen.

“But now that gets put on hold. So I can’t imagine the emotional toll that that takes on both the family members and the residents.”

It’s not just residents and family members feeling low. Klassen said morale is extremely low at BCPA member organizations right now. Staff—who he described as extremely passionate about their work—are mentally and physically exhausted.

On top of that, he said there have been some staffing issues related to the mandatory vaccination policy for all healthcare workers that kicked in this week. 

“You do hear from people regularly that are just at the brink of exhaustion and they need relief. Summertime is kind of the time that you hope that people are able to take a little break and maybe take a few days off—that didn’t happen for a lot of these staff teams,” he said.

“And now we’re going back into this unfortunate, and in some ways avoidable, rise in cases again.”

Are you or a loved one affected by the outbreak at Willingdon Care Centre? Please reach out to us at [email protected].