MONTREAL -- Employees at a long-term care facility in Terrebonne were already exhausted before the pandemic, and it had been understaffed for years, said Mirta Pierre, a nursing assistant who worked there.

The CHSLD des Moulins is the first to be examined by Coroner Gehane Kamel during the public inquiry into the deaths that occurred during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. This private facility in Terrebonne was affected by an outbreak of COVID-19 that lasted 76 days.

Pierre, in a soft voice, explained that even before the pandemic, everyone was working hard, and because of the lack of staff, the CHSLD had to rely on agency employees.

Agency employees, though, didn't know the place and the residents as well as the regular employees, said the nursing assistant.

With those words, she echoed officials at the Lanaudière CISSS, who testified Monday that it was understaffed when COVID-19 struck and that employees were moving from one seniors' residence to another, despite the risk of contamination.

During the first two weeks of the first wave of COVID-19 in March 2020, however, Pierre believes that basic care was provided to seniors living at CHSLD des Moulins.

She only worked for two weeks during this first wave. During this period, she said she did not receive training in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

After the CHSLD des Moulins, Kamel must investigate a series of other residences, namely the private seniors' home Manoir Liverpool in Lévis, the CHSLD René-Lévesque in Longueuil, the CSHLD Laflèche in Shawinigan, the CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, the CHSLD Yvon-Brunet in Montreal and finally the CHSLD Herron.

Approximately half of the deaths caused by COVID-19 in Quebec occurred in residences for the elderly, Kamel recalled on Monday.

The hearing is therefore necessary, 'in order to better understand the factors that have contributed, in the various types of environments housing elderly or vulnerable people, to make them the main collateral victims of COVID', said the coroner in her opening remarks.

Only deaths that occurred between March 12 and May 1, 2020, are included in the inquiry.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021.