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COVID-19 outbreak at Markham, Ont., group home for the disabled turns deadly

A massive COVID-19 outbreak that's sickened all but five residents of an Ontario group home for the disabled has now turned deadly. The family of resident Martin Frogley, 58, says he died of COVID-19 in a Markham, Ont., hospital early Wednesday.
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A massive COVID-19 outbreak that's sickened all but five residents of an Ontario group home for the disabled has now turned deadly.

The family of resident Martin Frogley, 58, says he died of COVID-19 in a Markham, Ont., hospital early Wednesday.

A family statement says he "passed peacefully" listening to music he loved.

Frogley was one of 42 people with either a physical or intellectual disability living at Participation House, a facility where a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus has caused chaos in recent days.

The Markham Stouffville Hospital, which is assisting the home, says 37 of the 42 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 13 staff are also infected.

Last week most of the employees stopped working, a situation the union representing them attributed to a growing number of positive tests and public health guidance that advised them to stay away from the facility.

Frogley's family did not comment on the unfolding situation at Participation House, reflecting only on his memory while requesting privacy as they grieve his death.

"He was a wonderful son, uncle and the best brother anyone could ever ask for," the family said in a statement.

They thanked Participation House employees for what they described as "exceptional care," as well as the hospital staff who tended to him in his final days.

Earlier this week, Participation House Executive Director Shelley Brillinger said a resident had been taken to hospital on the weekend. She said at the time he was "holding his own," but provided no other details.

The staffing shortage, which triggered pleas for help from municipal and provincial politicians and prompted former federal health minister Dr. Jane Philpott to start providing medical care at the home, began last week when the outbreak was first announced.

At that point, at least 10 residents and two staff members were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19.

It was widely reported that the ensuing shortage was caused by employees walking off the job, but the union representing Participation House staff says the situation was caused instead by employees following widely recommended public health advice.

Tom Galivan, secretary-treasurer of The Service Employees International Union Local Two, said the home had been experiencing staffing shortages for months prior to the pandemic. On Thursday, he said employees staff learned that positive cases had surfaced among residents and were advised to get tested immediately.

"The current staffing challenges are rooted in the fact that 30 per cent of the workforce has tested positive or is awaiting test results," he said, noting public health officials have advised those with possible COVID-19 exposure to self-isolate at once.

Galivan said another large swath of the staff had previously been working at multiple long-term care facilities in order to make ends meet, but were advised to stay at one workplace in order to curb the spread of the virus. Premier Doug Ford announced a provincial measure to the same effect on Wednesday.

Since last week, the outbreak has spread to 27 more residents and 11 more staff, a development the home described as "very upsetting."

"Our hearts go out to the residents and their families as we face this challenge," Brillinger said in a statement released on Tuesday. "I want to reassure our residents and their families that, with the support of the hospital, we are providing the care that is needed."

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on long-term care homes across the country, and Ontario is no exception. At least 98 facilities have reported outbreaks, and the 145 deaths in those homes account for nearly 40 per cent of the 385 total deaths in the province to date.

The grim situation prompted Ford to acknowledge shortcomings in the province's long-term care system as he announced emergency measures intended to address the outbreaks in those centres.

"There's cracks," Ford said after announcing additional testing and infection control measures. "We have to raise the standards...This is a wake-up call to the world, not just Ontario."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2020.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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