MONTREAL -- Quebec’s ombudsperson is launching an investigation into the province’s health and social services ministry and other public health institutions to shed light on how it responded to the COVID-19 crisis in long-term care homes and other facilities.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Marie Rinfret said she is “very concerned” about how elderly residents are being treated and cared for and that she intends to conduct an impartial and independent investigation.

Rinfret said the death toll and number of outbreaks in public long-term care facilities (CHSLDs) “have brought alarming findings into focus” about the ability of residences to deal with pandemics.

Of the more than 4,000 deaths from COVID-19 in Quebec, nearly 75 per cent of them are older than 80.

"The current crisis is happening in living environments that were vulnerable to begin with and where there were known problems that were often criticized by the Québec Ombudsman," said Rinfret, who pointed to “a glaring shortage of staff, difficult work conditions because of this shortage, a high turnover rate for care attendants, and insufficient oversight of private residences by the public network" as causes for concern.

The ombudsperson’s goal will be to identify:

  • The required improvements in residences for seniors based on the events of the crisis and known pre-pandemic shortcomings;
  • The measures to put in place to better handle future pandemics or any other similar crisis.

The investigation is expected to be completed by autumn 2021, but Rinfret said a progress report will be published in autumn 2020 “with a view to swinging into action quickly.”

Rinfret's investigation is one of many that have been announced into the province's long-term care homes since the start of the pandemic. Three professional orders -- representing doctors, nurses and licensed practical nurses -- have announced separate probes.

Other investigations are being conducted by the coroner's office and the Montreal police. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has also stated he would be open to launching a public inquiry when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Bill Blair, minister of public safety, said the Canadian Armed Forces are preparing a report about their mission inside Quebec's long-term care homes. Hundreds of military personnel have been deployed to about 20 facilities to help clean, feed and care for the elderly in the province.

Blair's spokeswoman, Mary-Liz Power, said she didn't know when the military's report on Quebec's senior facilities would be made public, or what will be in it. She said it's standard practice for them to write reports on their missions.

"It'll be a report on what they saw," Power said in an interview. Ewan Sauves, spokesman for Quebec Premier Francois Legault, said the premier's office did not have in its possession a report by the military, and the Canadian Armed Forces did not return a request for comment.

Rinfret's office will probe public and private long-term care homes, where more than 60 per cent of the province's COVID-19 deaths have occurred. The ombudswoman will also review practices at other public residences such as so-called intermediate resources, which are centres adapted for people with limited mobility.

The investigation will also analyze the private network of senior residences that are certified by the Health Department or have agreements with regional health networks. About 18 per cent of the province's COVID-19 deaths have occurred at private seniors residences.

Management of the province's long-term care homes during the pandemic came under increased scrutiny in early April after an investigation by the Montreal Gazette revealed 27 patients had died in a single facility over a two-week period. News reports since then have revealed that at least 51 patients in the CHSLD Herron have died.

The coroner announced April 12 it would investigate the deaths at the centre, which has been placed under trusteeship by the provincial government. Montreal police are also investigating.

Since the Herron scandal broke, there have been more revelations of difficult conditions at many of the province's long-term care homes, which continue to suffer from a shortage of experienced full-time staff.

Treasury Secretary Christian Dube said Tuesday the province is offering orderlies who work in long-term care homes an 18 per cent salary increase. Full-time workers would see their salaries increase to $51,000 a year from $42,000 a year, he announced on Twitter.

With files from The Canadian Press.