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Quebec seniors minister tells inquest that care homes knew how to manage outbreaks

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Quebec's seniors minister told a coroner's inquest on Friday she was confident at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that long-term care homes knew how to manage outbreaks.

Marguerite Blais testified that she learned in mid-March 2020 that seniors were more at risk than the general population of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, but she said she believed the long-term care network had strong infection-control practices.

"The (long-term care homes) are known for managing outbreaks," Blais told coroner Géhane Kamel, who is examining the deaths of elderly and vulnerable people in seven residential settings during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kamel's inquest is also investigating the government's response to the outbreaks.

"It's not the first time there were outbreaks in the (homes) and it won't be the last," the minister said. 

Blais said nobody had expected the virus to hit long-term care homes as hard as they did. Almost 4,000 people died in the homes, known in Quebec as CHSLDs, between March and June 2020, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of the deaths reported in the province during the first wave.

"We thought it would affect hospitals," Blais said.

On Friday, Kamel expressed shock at Blais's statement that the high risk of COVID-19 to the elderly was first discussed in a meeting on March 9, 2020, noting that previous witnesses, including the province's former health minister and public health director, had said they knew the risks since January.

"You understand my astonishment," Kamel said. "There are testimonies that have said the complete opposite of what you're saying this morning."

Blais said she joined the government's pandemic crisis group in mid-March, several days after the March 9 meeting.

Kamel noted that Blais told a journalist in September 2020 that she hadn't felt listened to during those meetings, but the minister walked back her statements on Friday. She told Kamel that the interview had been given during a time of "extreme emotion," when she was not objective, adding that the government would not have invested as heavily as it did into long-term care if it had not been listening.

Later, a lawyer representing six victims' families asked Blais which concerns she had expressed to the crisis group. She didn't provide an example.

Blais opened her long-anticipated testimony by expressing her condolences to the families of those who died, adding she felt it was her responsibility to participate in the inquest.

"People are in mourning; I am too," she said.

She had been originally scheduled to speak in November but said Friday she had been suffering from professional exhaustion at the time and had been too emotional to testify.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2022.

Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press