Ottawa managed alcohol residence steps up protective measures for pandemic
“If the virus gets in, there will be people who don’t make it”
With 51 long-term-care homes and 15 hospitals in Ontario reporting outbreaks of the novel coronavirus as of April 7, vulnerable Inuit in communal southern residences have ample reason to fear for their safety.
But Igloolik’s Simeonie Kunnuk, who lives at The Oaks in Ottawa, says he feels confident that managers and staff are taking this pandemic seriously and keeping them as safe as possible.
“In the beginning I was very fearful. I was worried. But the way they’re handling it here is right on the money. We are keeping safe here because of the great staff we have,” said Kunnuk in a phone interview on Tuesday, April 7. He’s been living at The Oaks for almost five years. “I wouldn’t have known what to do if I was out there on my own.”
Although he has a son in the city, Kunnuk told him to stay away for now. “It’s better not to have visitors. There are about 60 people here, and this thing could spread like wildfire.”
The Oaks, which has a residential managed alcohol program, or MAP, run by Ottawa’s Shepherds of Good Hope charity, offers hourly portions of alcohol as a harm reduction strategy for alcoholics, many of whom would otherwise be homeless, in hospital or in jail.
Many of The Oaks’ residents have frail health because of their age and the risky, challenging lives they’ve led. As a result, there are now strict protection measures in place, the main one being no visitors and no volunteers.
“I think residents recognize the seriousness of this,” said Oaks program manager Ray MacQuatt. “We’ve had a lot of residents meetings with the management team, educating them on how the virus works but also educating them as to why we’ve put specific cautions in place so they know they’re not punitive.
“Staff are very aware that we’ve got a very vulnerable population here and if the virus gets in, there will be people who don’t make it.”
The Oaks is a 65-unit former hotel on Merivale Road. Ten of those units are rented out to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the rest are reserved for residents in the MAP. Nearly one-third of MAP residents are Inuit.
Within the facility, staff are enforcing physical distancing rules that require residents to remain six feet apart when approaching the service counter for medication, supplies or their hourly portion of wine. Residents have been asked to remain in their rooms as much as possible or to practise social distancing and frequent hand washing when using common areas.
Staff are also trying to limit residents’ trips outside the facility to a half-hour window each day, with residents telling staff where they are going—the usual destination being a nearby convenience store. When they return, staff ensure residents wash their hands or use hand sanitizer.
The biggest threat to residents is probably staff, MacQuatt acknowledged, because staff are out in the community, stopping at gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores. Working at The Oaks is considered an essential service, so while they’re able to keep their paycheques, staff are also at a greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
So far, no resident or staff member at the facility has exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, but if they did, there would be mandatory self-isolation for 14 days, MacQuatt said. For now, staff are required to uphold strict hygiene protocols before and during their shifts.
They’re also required to do extra work because volunteers who usually take care of things like making lunch and doing laundry have been asked to stay away. But some residents have stepped up to help, including Tytoosie Tunnillie, who is originally from Kinngait.
Tunnillie, who has lived at The Oaks for nearly three years, has been helping wash dishes and prepare food. “He’s been amazing,” MacQuatt said. “I want to put him on the payroll!”
“I’ve just been washing up and helping out with snacks,” Tunnillie said. “It’s been kinda scary. I hope nobody gets sick. People at home [in Nunavut] are worried. They are just staying at home all the time.”
Tunnillie, who has struggled with alcoholism most of his life, quit drinking eight months ago and has lost about 40 lbs. Even though he doesn’t take his hourly dose of wine any more, MacQuatt said Tunnillie is still welcome to stay—as is any other resident who manages to go sober.
The Shepherds of Good Hope also runs an emergency shelter and soup kitchen in downtown Ottawa. So far, the facility—which has seen a marked increase in clients thanks to the closure of other city services—has been free of COVID-19 cases.