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MONTREAL -- Health board officials prevented management of a West Island seniors' residence from contacting family members, even as dozens of residents were dying during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the facility's owners.
Numerous documents released by Katasa Group, owners of the Maison Herron, show the deteriorating relationship between Herron management and public health officials as the pandemic raged.
In an email dated April 9, Maison Herron co-owner Samantha Chowieri accused West Island regional health board (CIUSSS) CEO Lynne McVey of causing an increase of COVID-19 cases among the facility's staff and residents by not quarantining residents who had tested positive for the virus.
“Families are completely in the dark since the beginning of the week and now they're taking their complaints to the media,” Chowieri wrote. “We have mentioned this problem to your managers many times."
That same day, Chowieri's sister and co-owner, Katherine Chowieri, wrote an email to Health Minister Danielle McCann, laying out her version of the “disastrous evolution” of the situation. In it, she complained that “nobody communicates with families and they don't allow us to communicate with them. The families are frustrated and will go to the media.”
In that same email, Katherine Chowieri accused CIUSSS workers of not separating residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 from those who hadn't, didn't let residence employees know which residents had tested positive and administered care without consulting medical files.
Two days later, on April 11, a visibly shaken Premier Francois Legault said a total of 31 people had died in Herron, with at least five of those deaths due to COVID-19. McVey said a team from the health board entered the residence on March 28 but only on April 8, when the board was able to access residents' files, were the deaths discovered.
Several investigations are underway into the deaths, including one conducted by Montreal police's Major Crimes Unit and a coroner's inquiry.
On Saturday, McVey told media that public health officials had received no cooperation from Herron management when help was offered.
In a statement released Monday, the CIUSSS laid blame at the feet of the Herron's owners.
“Despite the situation, the owners of the residence did not fully cooperate, forcing the CIUSSS to send them formal notices twice and an order from the Direction de la Sante Publique de Montreal on April 7,” they said.
Legault echoed that sentiment.
“The CIUSSS didn't get the collaboration and the information about infection, about death,” he said. “Yes, they were informed there was a shortage of employees, they sent employees, but the problem is worse than that.”
In an interview, Chowieri's sister and co-owner Katherine Chowieri said the CIUSSS maintained the health board made the situation at Herron worse.
“All those allegations, I don't want to say lies, but I think the premier and minister were misinformed of what's going on,” she said. “We have proof of all the communications, everything that we've done. The CIUSSS is the one who took charge and we have that in writing on the 29th. The simple issue we had was staffing, rendering services to our residents, and we reached out to them for help on that day because we wanted to ensure proper services, proper care be given to these patients.”
Emails and texts dated March 29 show Samantha Chowieri asking health officials for reinforcements, saying the facility was short of nurses and support staff, as well as equipment such as masks, vests and visors.
On March 30, Chowieri emailed McVey, saying she had asked the CIUSSS for support after the residence received their first COVID-19 diagnosis. She added that numerous employees who had been in the presence of people diagnosed with the virus had stopped coming in to work because of messages from the government saying they should self-quarantine.
“I hope you can judge that the situation we had with our staff was mainly due to the first directives issued by Public Health to staff present for the screening or by phone in relation to COVID-19,” she wrote. “This is not a question of loyalty but a question of following government directives and an incomprehensible fear for some people.”
McVey responded the next day, repeating that a CIUSSS representative would oversee the facility and someone would be on site to take charge of infection prevention but that Herron's operators, a company called Kasata Group owned by the Chowieri family, would remain responsible for the residence's finances.
In another email, dated April 8, sent to CIUSSS official Martine Daigneault, Chowieri complained of a lack of transparency from the health board and accused them of trying to hire away the residence's staff and of making it impossible for Herron management to properly schedule staff.
“Some employees are refusing to return and others feel that the bond of trust with us is broken,” she said. “They feel we haven't been transparent with them. The situation is completely attributable to your lack of transparency with our management as well as your provocative and irrational methods.”
One text message was between CIUSSS-West Montreal Director of the Support for Elderly Autonomy Program Brigitte Auger to Herron director general Andrei Stanica dated March 29. In the text, Auger said she had received a call from the Lakeshore General Hospital reporting an influx of Herron residents testing positive for COVID-19, as well as a Herron nurse.
“Positive cases, unless severe respiratory problems, need to be kept in the establishment,” Auger wrote. “The staff need to be wearing proper equipment.”??
An email sent that same day from McVey to Stanica said Herron residents were “abandoned by your staff and sent in large numbers to the emergency department of the Lakeshore General Hospital.”
“I would like to inform you of a direction from our government to put your RPA under guardianship and manage it on behalf of the government, which we are doing this evening.”