Ontario's minister of long-term care compared the deaths in the first wave of COVID-19 to a bad flu year — comments that sparked concern from opposition politicians.
Minister Merrillee Fullerton had been asked about a column in the Toronto Sun that argued the first wave of the pandemic "really was not that much worse than a bad flu season when it came to fatalities for our most vulnerable."
Fullerton said it is a reflection of how vulnerable people are in long-term care and that "it really speaks to the neglect of the sector over many decades."
"The numbers do indicate — if you actually measured the flu season, from 2017 into 2018 — the numbers are comparable," she said. "But I don't want to talk about numbers. You know, it is about people."
"So, it is about valuing our elderly, valuing our seniors, valuing our most vulnerable people in our society and a whole lot of work needs to be done, and we’re doing it,” she said.
There were 1,713 additional deaths in long-term care in April and May of this year compared to the average of recent years, and 549 more than the two months at the peak of the flu season in 2018, according to figures from Fullerton's office.
Columnist Brian Lilley based his opinion on a document provided by Fullerton's staff that compared the number of deaths in long-term care in the first six months of 2020 with the first six months of 2018.
The document they provided says there were 462 more deaths in the first six months of 2020 than in the same period of 2018, and 1,313 additional deaths compared to the average of that six-month period from 2014 to 2019.
However, one expert argued that those are misleading statistics because the pandemic didn't hit long-term care homes until late March and there were lower-than-average deaths in the months preceding the pandemic and in June. As a result, looking at only the total deaths over the six-month period masks the extent of deaths during the long-term care epidemic of the first wave.
Lilley highlighted in his column that total deaths of the first six months of 2020 were only 3.7 per cent higher than the same time period in 2018, "a bad flu year."
Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network Hospitals in Toronto, described that figure as an example of "lies, damn lies, and statistics" — meaning that, even though the number is accurate, it is misleading.
That figure is a comparison of only some of the deaths attributable to COVID-19 in long-term care over a two-month period with the total deaths in long-term care over a six-month period — not only to flu-related deaths over a comparable time period. Despite that, Lilley reached the conclusion that it "really was not that much worse than a bad flu season."
"I think it also ignores the fact that we lost 1,700 people to COVID — and many others to the side-effects of it — and many of these deaths were avoidable," Sinha said in an email.
He said there were 1,713 excess deaths in long-term care during the epidemic in April and May of this year and, compared to the average of that time period in recent years, it was an increase of 47 per cent. Sinha added the total toll from the first wave of COVID-19 may be higher than it appears if deaths from other causes remained lower than the average, as they were earlier in the year.
Another concern, according to Sinha, is that the column reinforces the false narrative that COVID-19 isn't more dangerous than the flu.
That said, he agrees with Lilley's argument that more should be done to support LTC homes to better manage all kinds of outbreaks, including the flu. He stressed that people need to understand COVID-19 remains a very real threat, particularly to vulnerable people in long-term care.
Part of the problem of getting people to care about those in long-term care is they are seen as in "God’s Waiting Room," Sinha said, adding that the fact that COVID-19 hastened the deaths of hundreds of those people is comparable to the acts of serial killer Elizabeth Wettlaufer.
At Queen's Park, opposition politicians were dismayed at Fullerton's comment that the deaths from COVID-19 were "comparable" to a bad flu year.
"It's horrifyingly insensitive to simply suggest that the pandemic — the worldwide pandemic that we're in — is something that's akin to a bad flu," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "Let's face it, thousands of people have lost their lives. You know, thousands of families have watched their loved ones dying in long-term care, not able to comfort them, not able to speak to them, as they lose their lives because the government did not prepare for the onslaught of COVID-19 in our long-term care homes."
"It's disrespectful to all of the pain and anguish that families have had to live through over the last number of months and horrifyingly, that we're starting to live through again," she said. "We've already had more deaths in long-term care."
Liberal health critic John Fraser was visibly upset when asked about Fullerton's comment and acknowledged he was angry. He said COVID-19's morbidity rate as significantly higher than the flu and the resulting disruption of the long-term care home also led to other deaths from dehydration, loneliness and complications from other comorbidities.
"All these comparisons to the flu — not helpful," he said.
"She's a doctor," Fraser continued. "What are the results? Nineteen-hundred people dead or more. It's a dangerous, dangerous disease and trying to contextualize it as comparable to something else – there's nothing comparable that we've seen."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Fullerton's comments aren't acceptable to loved ones of the people who have died.
"Quite frankly, we know there are systemic challenges in long-term care that predated COVID and COVID has highlighted them and the government's job now is to fix it ... and the government failed to do that," he said. "And to suggest anything else is simply unacceptable."
Reached for comment, Lilley stood by his column and called into question the ethics of this reporter.