Vaccine Rollout Brings Hope to Maimonides

Dec. 17, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Every December, Beverly Spanier has organized a Hanukkah party for her friends. That celebration, held in a favourite restaurant or hotel, continued even after she moved into Maimonides Geriatric Centre five years ago.

Planning the party was a project the retired high school teacher worked on for weeks in advance. A paraplegic, she got to the site via the city’s adapted transit service.

That, of course, did not happen this year. Spanier, 75, has not left Maimonides since the pandemic began in March except for three hospital visits. In fact, she has been confined to her room for the past nine months, save for some time in its garden during the summer.

Beverly Spanier
Beverly Spanier

For the first months of the pandemic, all visitors, including paid caregivers on whom Spanier relied, were barred from Maimonides, and remain restricted.

For Spanier, Hanukkah has been limited to looking at the menorah in a municipal park from her fifth-floor window.

When Maimonides was selected as the first site in Montreal for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout, she didn’t hesitate to consent. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Spanier was among the first of the first in Canada – and indeed the world – to be inoculated.

Maimonides, a long-term care institution in Cote Saint-Luc, and a Quebec City nursing home, Centre d’Hébergement St. Antoine, received the first vaccine shipments to Quebec. The highly anticipated cargo landed at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal on the evening of Dec. 13.

Maimonides took delivery of two boxes of 972 doses each, and 150 residents and staff received their first shot on Dec. 14. Almost 95 percent of Maimonides’s approximately 350 residents have agreed to be inoculated, as have, at time of writing, 40 percent of its roughly 500 employees, according to CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that administers Maimonides.

Surplus doses from this initial batch will be made available to workers at other health care facilities in the local network.

The day after the first of her two shots, Spanier said she felt fine, with only a little redness at the injection site on her arm. Although she has much faith in medicine – her late brother was a doctor – Spanier was nervous about any adverse reaction and wondered if Maimonides had sufficient medical support on standby should a problem arise.

(CIUSSS officials reassured the public that it does have a trained team in place and precautions, such as a “crash cart,” to treat anaphylactic shock.)

“It is miraculous how the scientists and pharmaceutical industry have been able to produce an effective vaccine in such a short time, but you do worry,” Spanier said. “We are still, in a sense, in the midst of an experiment.”

On balance, she realizes that her risk of catching COVID is far greater than any associated with the vaccine. The consequences for Spanier, who has respiratory issues, could be fatal.

She also has a sense of responsibility toward society. “I think that we all have to do what we can to overcome this terrible disease and allow the world to return to normal.”

The psychological toll of the pandemic has been brutal, she said.

Maimonides has been hard hit by the coronavirus, twice. In the first wave, a third of residents were infected and 39 died, according to government information. It took the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and, after that, the Canadian Red Cross to help overwhelmed staff get the outbreak under control.

In early October, Maimonides was proud to announce there were no more active cases. But within weeks, the numbers went from zero to over 50 and, after trying to care for the sick in an isolated ward, transferred many to hospital.

On Dec. 16, Maimonides site coordinator Jennifer Clarke made public that, in the second wave, a total of 88 residents have had COVID and 19 have died. There are currently nine active cases, she reported.

Spanier compares her life to being on a “battleground,” with its fear, disruption and grief.

“We are a community here. I knew some of the people who died, or know someone who knew them,” she said. Her hope today is tinged with solemnity because she can’t forget the havoc the virus wreaked.

Much hoopla surrounded the rollout at Maimonides, with Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on hand for a ceremony held outside the building just before the first shot was administered to resident Gloria Lallouz, 78.

The politicians hailed it as a historic occasion. Hajdu, who did not hide her tears, said, “I see this as the first step toward the light.”

Spanier is more cautious. The first battle to be won is ending the pandemic, but the definition of victory in the long term, she believes, is changing society’s disregard for the institutionalized frail elderly.

“If any good has come out of this, it is that light has been shed on what is happening in chronic care places. We can’t just dump people, and the resources have to back that up. One orderly for 35 patients at night is not feasible anymore.”

Breaking News: Maimonides Sends COVID Patients to Hospital to Curb Outbreak

Dec. 1, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – A rapidly worsening COVID outbreak at Maimonides Geriatric Centre has been brought under temporary control by transferring infected residents to hospital, but family members say more needs to be done to prevent a recurrence.

On Nov. 29, 20 residents were taken by ambulance from the Cote Saint-Luc long-term care facility’s “hot zone.” Two acutely ill residents were brought to the Jewish General Hospital and the rest to Hotel Dieu Hospital, which has a unit dedicated to less severely ill patients from nursing and seniors’ homes.

Maimonides’s hot zone for active cases, located on its uppermost seventh floor, is closed for now.

The move was made after some relatives held a demonstration outside Maimonides on Nov. 26, fearing the facility had lost control of the viral spread. They claimed infection prevention measures were inadequate, that a shortage of nursing and support staff was resulting in repeated movement between cold, warm and hot zones, and that infected residents were not getting the medical treatment they needed.

They appealed to Premier Francois Legault to take immediate action.

Active cases went from zero to over 50 in a couple of weeks, the most at any long-term care home in the province at that point, although not the highest per capita rate. Eight residents had previously been sent to hospital. Ten residents have died, while others recovered.

In addition, more than 20 staff members and about a dozen registered caregivers – either family members or workers privately hired – have tested positive and had to quarantine at home.

Maimonides was hard hit by COVID in the first wave, when one-third of residents had the virus and 39 succumbed to it, according to Quebec government statistics. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces and later the Canadian Red Cross were brought in.

During this second wave, administrators had insisted the situation was in hand, that stringent infection prevention measures were in place, and that staffing overall met government requirements, until relatives raised their voices ever louder that this was not what they observed. They received support from Cote Saint-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein and local Member of the National Assembly, David Birnbaum.

In a Nov. 29 public message under the heading “Mission accomplished!” Barbra Gold, an official of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that manages Maimonides, confirmed that the residents’ transfer to hospital had been completed that day.

“We hope that this temporary closing of our hot zone will break the cycle of infection in our facility,” she stated.

Gold said that 10 other residents with active COVID who had been in the hot zone remain at Maimonides, explaining, “our medical team determined they could be safely returned to their rooms (in other areas).”

Caregivers are not allowed to visit the residents at Hotel Dieu, she said, but an effort is being made to set up FaceTime calls. They were accompanied to Hotel Dieu by the nurses and orderlies who had tended to them at Maimonides. The CIUSSS has arranged for kosher food to be available there.

Gold added that a virtual town hall with families is being planned to address concerns.

The day before, Gold communicated that an evaluation of Maimonides’s COVID isolation unit by public health authorities, infectious disease specialists and the institution’s health care professionals had been conducted. A “contributing factor” to the virus’s rapid spread, they believe, was “a high density of very contagious individuals in a relatively small area that has not been built to accommodate them.” That seventh-floor wing was sealed off with plastic sheeting.

Another CIUSSS official, associate chief executive officer Francine Dupuis, told the media that the ventilation system may have been another factor. She also said the origin of the outbreak was traced to a caregiver, who was asymptomatic and later tested positive.

The Family Advocacy Committee, which staged the demonstration, is now calling for mandatory weekly testing of all employees and visitors to Maimonides. Its chair, Joyce Shanks, whose 92-year-old father is a resident, deplored that testing is now voluntary and only required when a positive case occurs in a unit.

The committee would also like to see the return of the Red Cross or of the health department’s “swat team,” which shores up staff when an outbreak reaches a critical level.

The CIUSSS says that, as of Dec. 7, all registered caregivers at Maimonides and other CHSLD under its jurisdiction, which includes the Jewish Eldercare Centre, must be tested every two weeks, either on-site or at any testing centre in the province. Written proof of a negative result must be shown or they will be barred. Maimonides has an on-site clinic three days a week, and Eldercare twice a week.

Since the second wave began, the 320-bed Eldercare has had total of 17 cases among its residents of which 10 are now active, attending physician Dr. Mark Karanofsky reported. Two residents have died. Two positive staff are currently isolating at home. Karanofsky himself came down with COVID in late October and has recovered.

Montreal Geriatric Centres Battling COVID Outbreak

Nov. 18, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Less than a month after declaring it was COVID-free, Maimonides Geriatric Centre is trying to contain a serious outbreak among residents, as well as staff and outside caregivers.

On Nov. 17, the long-term care institution reported that 26 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that three have died since the start of the second wave.

In addition, 16 staff have been infected, as well as six registered caregivers. The latter are either family members or private personal support workers permitted to regularly visit a resident, under strict conditions. Maimonides says five other caregivers earlier tested positive, but have recovered.

All infected staff remain at home.

Maimonides, a 380-bed facility in Cote Saint-Luc, was hard hit by COVID in the spring and summer. According to government statistics, a third of the residents contracted the illness and 39 died during that period.

The virus appears to be spreading rapidly. On Nov. 13, Maimonides reported that 16 residents and 11 staff had tested positive, and no deaths were announced.

The positive residents, all from the second and third floors, have been moved to a sealed-off ward occupying half of the uppermost seventh floor.

All residents who were cared for by the 16 infected staff members, who worked on the second, third, fourth and sixth floors, have been placed in isolation elsewhere while they await their test results. Also isolated are those residents who were tended by the 11 infected caregivers, who were present in various units.

Five wings on the second to sixth floors are now designated “warm zones” for precautionary isolation where only essential medical appointments are permitted and all other services and activities considered non-essential are on hold.

“We are currently looking at different strategies for minimizing the introduction by caregivers of the virus into our facility,” states the public message, signed by Maimonides co-chiefs Dr. Jack Gaiptman and Dr. Kris MacMahon, and site coordinator Jennifer Clarke. On-site testing for caregivers is now available three days a week.

The first case of a resident contracting COVID in the second wave was reported on Nov. 4, and was traced to a staff member who had tested positive. On Oct. 31, Maimonides reported that three staff members had been found positive, and other staff with whom they had been in contact were being tested.

That was just 12 days after the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal informed families that there were no longer any COVID cases among residents at Maimonides and the Jewish Eldercare Centre.

This regional health authority, which administers the institutions, said that the “hot zones” at both facilities would therefore be made available for outside COVID-positive patients who are medically stable but require more care than is available where they live, such as seniors’ residences, or who are not strong enough to go home after hospitalization.

These patients would be from the geographical territory this CIUSSS oversees.

To date, no such patients have been admitted.

Eldercare, a 380-bed institution in the Cote-des-Neiges district, is also dealing with a new COVID outbreak. It was hit even harder in the first wave than Maimonides, suffering a rash of cases and deaths from the beginning of the pandemic in March.

On Oct. 31, families of Eldercare residents were advised that one resident and two employees on the fourth floor of its Hope pavilion had tested positive by attending physician Dr. Mark Karanofsky.

Days later, that had grown to four residents and seven staff on the same floor.

All infected residents are confined to the hot zone and attended by staff working only with them, said Karanofsky. The presence of “COVID agents” was increased to ensure sanitary practices were being followed by staff and registered caregivers.

On Nov. 2, Karanofsky reported that he had tested positive after showing symptoms of a cough and headache. 

He said the last time he was in the Eldercare building was Oct. 27 and that he had always worn a mask and face shield when he was with a resident.

In his latest communication on Nov. 17, Karanofsky said there were eight active cases among residents and two among staff, all from the Hope pavilion’s fourth floor. Having isolated for two weeks, he said he had been cleared to return to work.

Over the past few weeks throughout Quebec, there has been a spike in COVID cases in long-term care centres. Maimonides and Eldercare are now on the government’s watch list, ranked in the yellow zone below the more serious orange and red zones.

Among private seniors’ residences which provide intermediate care, the government has placed the kosher Le Waldorf in Cote Saint-Luc in the yellow category after nine residents, or five per cent of the total, came down with the illness. Two deaths are recorded.

Second COVID Wave Hits Montreal Jewish Community

Oct. 15, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The surge in COVID in Quebec is affecting the Montreal Jewish community no less seriously than the rest of the population.

The impact of a record number of new cases in the province is clearly seen in Jewish schools. Hebrew Academy is the second day school that has had to close temporarily because of an outbreak of the coronavirus, and Akiva School was added to the rapidly growing list of schools in Quebec that have cases.

Hebrew Academy switched both its elementary and high school to online learning at home until Oct. 19 after “a number” of people at the school tested positive, the administration informed parents.

Hebrew Academy, located in Cote St. Luc, said it took the decision “preventatively” in collaboration with the Montreal public health department, and will reassess the situation after the 14-day shutdown.

After three infected students were found at Akiva, an elementary school in Westmount next door to Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, two classes were sent home to learn remotely for the quarantine period. Head of School Rabbi Eric Grossman told the school community that the source of the outbreak is “directly linked to community spread (not school spread).”

Herzliah High School was the first Jewish school to record positive cases, and had to close on Sept. 17 for two weeks when the number grew to at least 15 students and one teacher. It was the first school in Quebec to have to take that measure.

Other schools that have had confirmed cases are Talmud Torah, Beth Rivkah Academy, Solomon Schechter Academy, and Yechiva Yavné, as well as the Yaldei School for children with special needs.

As of Oct. 10, the independent website covidecolesquebec.org listed 941 schools in the province that had at least one confirmed COVID case since the start of the school year.

There are other indications that the incidence of COVID is rising in Montreal’s Jewish community, which remains under the province’s highest alert until at least Oct. 28. This trend is despite strenuous efforts to adhere to COVID containment regulations, which was especially challenging over the three-week High Holiday period.

A six-storey mural paying tribute to health-care workers during the COVID crisis was inaugurated at the Jewish General Hospital in September, with support from the consular corps in Montreal, including Israel. (CIUSSS West-Central Montreal photo)

Cote St. Luc, a city of 34,000, the majority Jewish, is being red-flagged by the Montreal public health department after new cases went from 45 between Sept. 22-28, to 63 from Sept. 29-Oct. 5, even though it has been probably the most pro-active municipality since the outset of the pandemic.

Citing the many older residents, numerous religious and long-term care institutions, and residential density, Cote St. Luc’s city council declared a state of emergency in March and, in June, was the first jurisdiction in the province to require face coverings in indoor public spaces and to reduce gatherings to 10.

Mayor Mitchell Brownstein is now asking Quebec to permit the city to extend the mask regulation to common areas of apartments and condominiums.

The borough of Outremont currently has the highest per capita number of COVID cases on the island of Montreal, and public health officials say they are working closely with the Hasidic community that lives there to ensure adherence to the rules.

However, the Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec, which stresses compliance with government guidelines, thinks the uptick in the last few weeks only parallels what is happening in Montreal as a whole and can’t be termed an outbreak.

COVID has been brought under control in the two major Jewish nursing homes. Jewish Eldercare Centre had an outbreak in March and April of over 50 cases.

Maimonides Geriatric Centre, starting in April, would see a third of its 380 residents contract the virus and 39 die from it. It was one of the facilities that the Canadian Armed Forces was sent to this summer to ease the staff shortage.

The personal devastation of COVID is recounted by acclaimed cellist Denis Brott, who continues to recover from a near-fatal bout. His first public performance after 3-1/2 months of rehabilitation was at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, where he played the Max Bruch melody on Kol Nidre.

He spoke then for the first time about his ordeal. After returning to Montreal in mid-March from concerts in Europe, Brott, 69, became extremely ill. He spent 45 days in hospital – 32 of them on a ventilator in an induced coma.

He suffered complications involving the kidneys and liver. 

By his release on May 4, he had lost 25 kilos, and could barely stand, let alone walk. He had nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps worst of all, severe neuropathy in his hands prevented him from playing his instrument.

To get to where he could again perform the beloved Yom Kippur prayer “took resolve I did not know I had,” said the founder and artistic director of the annual Montreal Chamber Music Festival. “…Losing what I love and finding it again has been somewhat miraculous.”

Sukkot Will be Very Different With Montreal on High COVID Alert

Police Visits of Synagogues Were ‘Respectful’, Jewish Schools Report More COVID Cases

Oct. 2, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— There will be no sukkah-hopping in Montreal this year as the city and surrounding region began a 28-day partial lockdown on Oct. 1 in an attempt to stem a rapid increase in new COVID cases.

Having visitors at one’s home, whether indoors or out, is prohibited during this period of the province’s highest alert, colour-coded red, in force until Oct. 28.

This means participation in any Sukkot celebrations is limited to those residing at that address. No guests allowed.

Police have been granted extra powers to enforce the law. While they are not permitted to make random checks, they can call at homes where they have reason to believe a violation is taking place, Premier François Legault said.

If the occupant does not provide access, police can obtain a “remote warrant” quickly to enter the premises.

Simchat Torah festivities will also be curtailed, as synagogues – as with all houses of worship – continuing with permission to admit a maximum of 25 people at a time.

Celebrations cannot be held in outdoor public spaces, like parks, either, as social gatherings there are banned as well. Those residing in the red zone are also dissuaded from moving activities to an “orange” zone, the alert level just below red – the Laurentians, for example.

Montreal was designated “orange” on Sept. 20, just as Rosh Hashanah was concluding, meaning synagogues were suddenly subject to the 25-person limit, slashed from the socially-distanced 250 that had been in place since Aug. 3 for all houses of worship.

Some synagogues cancelled in-person Yom Kippur services entirely, including Montreal’s largest, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which provided members with a guide to observance at home, a variety of pre-recorded online offerings, and a livestreamed Neilah ceremony. Most Montreal synagogues are Orthodox and could not use technology during the holy days.

Rabbi Poupko

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, said the community worked with the police before the holidays to ensure they would comply with the rules.

The 25-person limit, of which he had been critical, is more flexible than initially understood, Rabbi Poupko said. More than one group of up to 25 at one time is possible if synagogues have rooms with a separate and exclusive access to the street, he explained. Curtains, he added, cannot be barriers.

Large tents have also extended capacity. Weddings and funerals, wherever they take place, must also keep to the 25 threshold. (Reception halls are closed during these 28 days.)

This co-operation worked well, Rabbi Poupko told the CJR, and several synagogues in Cote St. Luc, Hampstead and Outremont were visited by police on Yom Kippur, but in a “respectful and dignified” manner.

“From everyone I’ve spoken to, the experience was very positive,” he said.

Rabbi Poupko rejected a claim by Berel Solomon, in a video posted online, that Solomon’s shul, the Beth Chabad Cote St. Luc, was “raided” by police near the end of services, and worshippers were “forced to disband” and chased on the street by police cruisers.

Solomon said all the guidelines were followed, and “no explanation” was given by police for the intervention. He claims at least seven other synagogues were “raided,” and deplored that, since the start of the pandemic, the Jewish community has been subject to “unprecedented harassment by the media and police.”

Rabbi Poupko would not comment publicly on the specifics of this incident, but said Solomon’s characterizations do not align with other evidence.

Meanwhile, four more Jewish day schools have reported at least one case of COVID among students or staff, although none have closed. The latest is Beth Rivkah Academy for girls, which informed parents that two students who are sisters tested positive and, as a result, all students in a grade 3 and a grade 5 class were sent home.

Earlier, Solomon Schechter Academy, an elementary school, reported a case among an unidentified staff member, but judged the risk of transmission “very low” as that person always wore a mask.

Yechiva Yavné told parents a janitor’s positive test also posed little risk to students because he did not have contact with them.

Similarly, Hebrew Academy informed its community that an infected “individual” in its high school “poses a minimal risk to students and faculty.” Parents were asked to monitor any symptoms exhibited by their children.

Additionally, the Yaldei School for children with special needs identified one case.

All schools are acting in co-operation with the Montreal public health department.

Herzliah High School, the first Jewish school affected by the virus, along with its elementary Talmud Torah, is scheduled to reopen Oct. 5 after a two-week closure necessitated by a significant outbreak among students.

As of Oct. 1, covidecolesquebec.org, which crowdsources and verifies information from parents, schools and others, listed 642 schools in the province that have had at least one confirmed case since the start of the academic year.

Barrie a Step From to Adopting IHRA Definition

Sept. 16, 2020 – By RON CSILLAG

The City of Barrie, Ont. is one step closer to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, a month after it unexpectedly withdrew the motion.

Meeting virtually on Sept. 15, the city’s General Committee quietly passed a resolution to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The measure now heads for ratification by city council, which meets Monday, Sept. 21, when members of the public can have their say.

The motion was identical to one that its sponsor, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, withdrew at the 11th hour last month after he and council members received a slew of letters and emails opposing its adoption.

Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (IJV), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and vehemently opposes the IHRA definition, boasted in August that “well over 100” of its members and supporters sent letters and messages to Barrie city councillors urging them to vote against the resolution.

Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor
Jeff Lehman, Barrie Mayor

In a CJR interview, Lehman conceded he put the item on the agenda last month “without a lot of broader discussion in the community, in part because it was the middle of the summer.”

Concern about the motion was raised after he and council members received about 200 messages opposing its adoption – “obviously a coordinated campaign by certain groups.”

Lehman said he didn’t want council making a decision based only on that.

“They needed to hear why this was important and to hear from our local community, which really hadn’t mobilized that way,” he said. “To be frank, I don’t think anybody really expected that degree of opposition.”

After the resolution was withdrawn, Lehman’s office told the CJR the motion was shelved “following a large number of requests from the Jewish community in Barrie for further consultation.”

Lehman confessed to being “a little confused by that language. I wanted to provide the time for that consultation, and I was concerned we hadn’t heard it.”

However, over the past month, he received “extensive correspondence” from the local Jewish community supporting the IHRA resolution.

In fact, that support “went well beyond the Jewish community,” Lehman added. “We had a number of community leaders speak to city council, and send in letters and emails of support.”

He said almost none of the letters and emails urging Barrie to defeat the IHRA resolution were from residents. “Of the nearly 200 emails, I believe only three that I received were from local residents.”

Should Barrie’s council pass the measure, it would join the Quebec cities of Westmount, Cote St.-Luc and Hampstead, and Vaughan, Ont., all of which have endorsed it.

As of this summer, the definition has been adopted or recognized by 18 countries. Last year, the federal government endorsed the definition as part of its anti-racism plan.

A bill before Ontario’s legislature on combating antisemitism, which contains the IHRA definition, passed second reading earlier this year and is headed to committee for public input.

IJV of Canada and other groups have called the IHRA definition “dangerous,” claiming its acceptance would stifle criticism of Israel and silence pro-Palestinian activism.

That concern is “certainly not supported by the language I see,” Lehman said, pointing out that the definition states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

On Monday, members of the public will be given five minutes each to make their views known.

David Shron, president of Barrie’s 63-family member Am Shalom Congregation, said someone representing the synagogue will address council in support of the IHRA motion.

He told the CJR that many of the messages sent to the mayor and council members opposing the measure came from outside Ontario.

In the past month, city officials were “inundated with information from people who actually know what’s going on in our local community.”

Shron said he was “very happy” the resolution was approved by the General Council, adding, “I don’t expect it having a major problem” before council.

The 2011 National Household Survey showed there were 660 Jews in Barrie.