Clamour grows for end to information black hole on virus toll among elderly
The number of care home residents in Northern Ireland who have died from Covid-19 is still not known despite the Department of Health coming under increasing pressure to release the information.
After more than a week of an information black hole on the situation in care homes, health officials yesterday revealed there have been 75 confirmed and 35 suspected Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes, of which 16 have been closed.
However, given that outbreaks only refer to two or more linked cases, the total number of affected care homes remains unknown, while the total number of care home residents who have lost their lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic remains under wraps.
It comes as it can be revealed that four of the 12 care homes owned by Runwood Homes have been affected by Covid-19.
Among them is Oak Tree Manor in Dunmurry, renamed after Runwood Homes was heavily criticised by the Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland for inhumane conditions and horrific neglect of residents, and a police investigation was launched into the matter.
Six people are known to have died at Oak Tree Manor since the beginning of the pandemic, while eight people are known to have died at Carrickfergus Manor. A further four people at Rose Court in Ballymena are known to have died in recent weeks.
Earlier this week, it emerged 14 people had died at another Runwood-owned home, Glenabbey Manor in Glengormley.
A spokeswoman from Runwood Homes said the majority of the firm’s services are free of Covid-19 and “we continue to provide person-centred care at a very difficult time, and pay huge tribute to our wonderful key workers, health trust colleagues and our residents and families for their continued support and understanding”.
She added: “Where we have had individual cases or outbreaks, families have been kept fully informed and up-to-date with the progress made at an individual level.”
A separate home operator in Co Down has seen 17 residents die at Ringdufferin Nursing Home since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
The NI Statistics and Research Agency is due today to release the number of Covid-19 fatalities up to the start of this month.
However, while the statistics will include the number of people who have died in care homes up to May 1, they will not reveal the number who contracted Covid-19 in care homes and later died in hospital.
Former Health Minister Jim Wells branded the situation in care homes “a crisis” and hit out at an apparent delay in implementing measures to protect residents, staff and their families.
“Essentially, care homes were forgotten about until it was too late,” said the DUP MLA. “The focus was on creating the capacity in hospitals, which was done very successfully and the Department of Health should be congratulated for that. However, whilst that was going on, very little was being done in care homes which allowed the virus to get in and start to spread.
“Unfortunately, we have got to the stage where it is now out of control and while measures have been put in place, it is a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.”
The Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch said: “I respect the need for anonymity of individual care homes, particularly where it might be possible to identify individual residents.
“However, I would like to see complete transparency in the reporting of up-to-date care home information, similar to the Department of Health dashboard which covers hospital information.”
Meanwhile, Stormont Health Committee chairman Colm Gildernew has called for details of Covid-19 cases in care homes “to be published as a matter of public interest”.
The Sinn Fein MLA said: “Care homes are at the centre of the fight against Covid-19.
“It is vital that care homes have robust testing, access to PPE and support for staff to deliver care.
“Families need to be informed if there is a positive case within a care home of a relative. It is a deeply worrying time, especially for residents and family members who have not been able to see each other for many weeks.
“I am calling on the Department of Health to provide clarity as to why they have not published detailed data on the spread and impact of Covid-19 within care homes.
“This is clearly a matter of public interest and if the information exists it should be published.
“We know from other international examples that Covid-19 can be particularly dangerous for vulnerable groups and within care settings. It is vital we know how it affects care settings locally.”
Health officials are coming under mounting pressure to explain the actions they took to protect care home residents as Covid-19 approached Northern Ireland.
Concerns have been raised about delays in providing personal protective equipment, care homes coming under pressure to accept new admissions, a lack of testing of staff and residents, staff working in multiple care homes, and staff working between healthy residents and those without the virus.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said “work is continuing to ensure extensive surveillance of the situation is being undertaken by homes across Northern Ireland” and there are plans to release further information relating to the situation in care homes in the future.
** An earlier version of this article stated, incorrectly, that at least six residents of Madelayne Court care home in Portstewart had died of Covid-19 since the beginning of March. Runwood Homes, which operates Madelayne Court, has told us, and we accept, that none of the deaths were Covid-19-related. We apologise for the error.