Burnaby care home bans home-cooked meals amid COVID outbreak

'That was the last thing I was doing for him,' says woman of her husband of 52 years

When 82-year-old Kuljeet Gill was checked into Burnaby’s New Vista Care Home nearly two years ago, he wasn’t happy there, according to Ami, his wife of almost 52 years

She doesn’t blame the care home, though, or its staff.

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“It’s not their fault; it’s the disease,” she said of her husband’s Alzheimer's.

One thing that has given the couple some solace, however, is food.

'The last thing'

Until COVID hit, Ami or one of her two daughters was with him three times a day for meals.

Even when she wasn’t allowed to see her husband for six weeks between May 1 and June 15 because of an outbreak at the care home, Ami still came every day to drop off fresh fruit for his breakfast and a homemade Indian dish for dinner.

“What else he’s left to enjoy?” Gill asks.

But even that thin thread of connection was severed on Sunday when New Vista announced families would no longer be allowed to drop off home-cooked meals for their loved ones.

Ami was devastated.

“That was the last thing I was doing for him,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “And then I phone him in the evening before he goes to bed – ‘Did you like it?’ – that was my communication with him. What I’m going to ask him now? What I’m going to ask him, tell me.”

A staff member told Ami that New Vista was following the direction of the Fraser Health Authority, and Ami challenged her to send one of the health authority’s infection control specialists to meet her at the door of the care home to explain how her homemade food was going to spread COVID.

“Their staff goes into work and they don’t have a control over their life,” Ami says. “Me, I’m living by myself. I make sure I don’t socialize because I don’t want to take the COVID there. When I’m visiting, I followed all their rules.”

Ami says she knows what she’s doing when it comes to infection control. She worked at Burnaby Hospital for 25 years, she says, many of them prepping and sterilizing operating rooms.

Deadly outbreaks

New Vista has battled two COVID-19 outbreaks since the global pandemic was declared in March; the first outbreak began in April, after a staff member tested positive, and the second was declared on Aug. 8, after another staff member tested positive.

As of Sept. 1, when New Vista sent out an email update to families, seven residents had died of COVID-19 and 22 residents and 11 staff members had tested positive.

“How can they control the staff? Gill asks. “I don’t blame the staff. They have their life after work hours. They’re going out. But, here, how much infection I can take there?”

Fraser Health spokesperson Aletta Vanderheyden said the health authority and New Vista leadership made the decision to temporarily halt deliveries of homemade food after a recent assessment.

“When an outbreak occurs in a long-term care or assisted-living facility, Fraser Health’s outbreak management team assesses potential risks and works with facility leadership on an ongoing basis to protect residents and staff,” Vanderheyden wrote in an email.

She said Fraser Health will continue to assess the risk to residents and will advise people who have loved ones at New Vista when they can start delivering food again.

When asked why food deliveries were not banned before at New Vista, Vanderheyden said not all facilities and outbreaks are the same, and “Fraser Health’s outbreak management team works with facility leadership to implement infection prevention and control measures to meet the unique needs of each site.”

Fraser Health has not yet responded to questions about what prompted the ban on food deliveries specifically, what specific risks the delivery of home-cooked food actually poses and whether measures – besides banning the food – could be put in place to reduce the risk.

Telling their stories

Ami, meanwhile, has told her story to the Office of the Seniors Advocate of B.C.

In August, the office launched a survey designed to gather stories and information about how COVID-19 restrictions are impacting the lives of seniors in long-term care and assisted living facilities and their families.

The information collected will be reported out publicly in October, so input from residents and families can help shape future pandemic planning at care homes, according to the office.

“We need to know what residents and family members think we should do, and we need to more fully understand the variation in visit policies across care homes,” B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie said in an emailed statement. “This will be important to know as we need to have a safe, but humane approach to supporting those who live in long-term care over the next year as we continue to live with COVID-19.”

More information about the survey, available until Sept. 30, can be found at www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca.

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