By Kelsey Johnson

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada is failing its seniors as officials struggle to contain fatal outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in long-term care homes across the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday.

Long-term care homes in Canada, whose residents are more vulnerable to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, have been hard-hit. In Canada, almost half of the country’s total deaths have been in nursing homes.

“We need to do better,” Trudeau told reporters at his daily briefing. “Because we are failing our parents, our grandparents, our elders – the greatest generation who built this country. We need to care for them properly.”

Ontario and Quebec, the country’s largest provinces, have both requested military help as officials face deadly outbreaks and severe staffing shortages in nursing homes.

Ottawa has approved those requests, Trudeau said, but added that it was a short-term solution.

“In Canada, we shouldn’t have soldiers taking care of seniors. Going forward in the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this,” he said.

Other provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, have also reported fatalities, and Canadians have also been barred from visiting their loved ones in nursing homes in an attempt to slow the spread.

“We can’t keep our seniors isolated forever,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said, explaining that loneliness also takes a toll on the health of older people.

Quebec, one of the hardest-hit provinces, has faced criticism for its handling of the pandemic in its long-term care facilities, which account for around 80% of the province’s 1,243 deaths, according to government data.

Quebec is short 9,500 front-line workers, Premier Francois Legault said, although it has recruited about 800 people including doctors – and the army – to work in the province’s care facilities and nursing homes. Some 4,000 of the missing staff have contracted the virus, he said.

In Ontario, where 516 people have died in long-term care homes, Premier Doug Ford said the system was broken. More than 130 Ontario nursing homes have reported outbreaks, government data showed.

“We’re going to fix the system,” said Ford, whose elderly mother-in-law is in a long-term care home and has tested positive for COVID-19, according to media reports. “But (in the) meantime, the No. 1 crisis is making sure we take care of these vulnerable people in these homes.”

(Reporting by Kelsey Johnson, additional reporting by Amran Abocar in Toronto and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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