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As the death toll mounts at Manitoba personal care homes, officials won’t say how inspectors decide whether to visit or make a video call to facilities that have COVID-19 outbreaks.

Manitoba Heath Minister Cameron Friesen has praised virtual inspections for not adding stress to nursing homes dealing with multiple cases, but his officials will not say how many homes have been inspected via phone or video calls.

No inspectors visited the Parkview Place care home for the first five weeks of its deadly outbreak this fall. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority sent a team to the facility on Oct. 17, and has made daily video calls since then. Parkview has the worst outbreak of any long-term care home in Manitoba.

Neither the WRHA nor the province could say how common virtual inspections are, or what criteria health authorities use to decide when to visit a home in person.

"In-person meetings are currently avoided whenever possible as any introduction of additional personnel inside the home increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission," wrote WRHA spokeswoman Bronwyn Penner-Holigroski.

Health authorities choose how often they monitor homes, and whether that's done in-person or using video calls. Officials would not provide any document outlining how they make those choices.

The WRHA deems video calls to be part of recurring check-ins, instead of an actual inspection.

"This gives us a better sense of the infection prevention and control measures throughout the facility and to problem-solve in real time if required," wrote Penner-Holigroski, adding that WRHA inspections are much more stringent and only occur in person.

The health minister suggested last week that full-blown inspections are being done through video calls.

"Obviously, we've had to adapt how we inspect personal care homes. I don't think anyone would have comfort to see people coming in with clipboards and charts in the same way they would have before (COVID). But using creativity — and looking at best practices and using ingenuity — we've been able to make sure that that oversight is still significant," Friesen told the Free Press last recently.

"There will be more inspections than in any other year before."

He reiterated those comments to CJOB on Oct. 23, in terms of the Parkview Place home in downtown Winnipeg.

"They're walking them through virtually; they are assessing care; they are assessing the residents. They are speaking to residents about the type of care they are receiving," he said.

Meanwhile, the provincial Health Department, which inspects licence compliance, said it has only checked in with two nursing homes by phone and email during the COVID-19 pandemic, and only because of travel restrictions to northern Manitoba. Otherwise, it only conducts in-person inspections.

Provincial inspectors went to the Parkview home on Wednesday, despite Friesen hailing the benefits of not visiting personal care homes.

Ontario temporarily conducted inspections via phone calls at the start of the pandemic, saying officials did not know how to visit homes without introducing more risk of COVID-19 spread.

Neither the department, Shared Health nor the WRHA would say whether they are implementing extra scrutiny in care homes owned by private operator Revera, which is based in Ontario.

Revera homes have had a disproportionate amount of deaths and coronavirus outbreaks in Manitoba. In a public meeting Monday, the WRHA said COVID-19 is present on more floors of the Parkview home than what the company had described.

Officials also said that residents with the virus were still sharing rooms with people who hadn’t been infected. So far, 19 people have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in mid-September.

The provincial NDP has asked the government to be more transparent about how it conducts inspections and reviews, and to publish the results.