Legault under fire as opposition seizes on explosive report into COVID in care homes

MONTREAL — After congratulating itself for months for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, Quebec's governing Coalition Avenir Québec party is on the defensive following an explosive report of its handling of long-term care during spring 2020.

The vulnerable residents of the province's underfunded long-term care homes were largely an afterthought in the government's pandemic preparedness plans, Quebec Ombudswoman Marie Rinfret concluded in her report released Tuesday. 

She said 4,000 residents died between February and June 2020 — nearly 70 per cent of the COVID-19 deaths in Quebec during the first wave.

Rinfret's report and an ongoing coroner's inquiry into long-term care deaths have been at the heart of testy exchanges this week at the legislature. They have also renewed the opposition's demands for a public inquiry into the government's pandemic response.

Premier François Legault and his government are riding high in the polls in this election year, but opposition parties, which have struggled to gain traction, may have found something to seize on, said Daniel Béland, a McGill University political science professor.

“Right now, it’s tough moments for the Coalition Avenir Québec," said Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. "They want to avoid a bigger inquiry into this."

Legault has so far refused to launch a public inquiry into his government's pandemic response, and he has said that the investigations launched by other independent officials suffice to reveal what happened in spring 2020.

Béland, however, said he isn't sure whether the disastrous first wave in long-term care homes is a big enough scandal to bring down Legault's government when Quebecers head to the polls next fall.

“I don’t know whether this is enough for the opposition to make major inroads because the popularity of François Legault has been quite sustainable despite all of the problems during the first wave of the pandemic," he noted. 

“These problems are not something we just discovered; we have been talking about this for a long time."

Quebec has reported more than 11,566 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, but the province has done better since the first wave. It's not clear whether COVID-19 will be front of mind for voters, Béland said. Language issues, immigration and labour shortages could replace the pandemic as election topics, he added.

“I don’t think it’s enough to really change the trajectory so far, but certainly (right now) it’s a source of headache for the premier."

But the storm clouds around Legault's government won't pass soon. Two other reports are expected on the first wave — one from the province's health and welfare commissioner and another from coroner Géhane Kame.

On Wednesday, Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann, who was shuffled out as health minister in June 2020, defended her handling of the pandemic. She has insisted that the entire health network was notified to prepare in January 2020 for the looming health crisis, but the ombudswoman's report said the care homes were forgotten.

McCann released a three-page letter dated Jan. 28, 2020, calling on health authorities to prepare. The document, however, makes no specific mention of long-term care homes. Rinfret's report said while officials had expressed concerns, no action was taken in long-term care until mid-March and measures only came in mid-April.

"I am extremely sensitive to what happened," McCann told reporters Wednesday. "As the minister of health of the time, I feel so much for the families, and I will live with that for the rest of my life."

In recent months, Legault and his ministers have been publicly congratulating themselves for Quebecers' high vaccination rates and the relatively low COVID-19 transmission in the province. On Tuesday, Legault boasted about how much better Quebec was doing compared with the United States and Europe. "Well, you've seen it. In some countries in Europe it's very worrying," he said.

"When we look closer to home, in the United States, if I take just the hospitalizations per million residents, they have six times more hospitalizations than we do in Quebec."

But that didn't stop the opposition from hammering the government this week. Opposition Leader Dominique Anglade told reporters Wednesday the government lied about its COVID-19 preparedness plans. 

"The government lied to Quebecers," she said. "It lied when it said there were directives that had been sent when there were not."

In response to more heated questions from the opposition during question period, Legault said his government did the best it could with the information it had. Many other parts of the world, he said, didn't foresee the problems that would occur in long-term care.

"We had no indication before March (2020) that there would be such a tragedy in the CHSLDs," Legault said, using the Quebec term for long-term care homes. He insisted the government's focus at the time was on protecting hospitals and procuring ventilators. 

"This is the information we had," he said. "I did my best with the information I had."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press