MONTREAL — Thirty-one people were found dead in less than a month at a nursing home in Montreal, at least five confirmed to have coronavirus — a powerful Canadian emblem of how nursing homes are among the places hardest hit by the pandemic.
In the United States 17 bodies were recently discovered at a long-term care facility in New Jersey, among 68 deaths linked to the residence, 26 confirmed as coronavirus cases. And it was at a long-term care facility in Kirkland, in Washington state, that Americans first got a glimpse of the horrors to come after residents fell ill with Covid-19 in late February.
The phenomenon has been seen across Europe as well. In Spain, soldiers sent to disinfect nursing homes found people abandoned, or even dead, in their beds. Italy, Britain and France have acknowledged that their official statistics have overlooked many virus-related deaths in long-term care facilities.
The deaths in Canada were discovered late last week at Résidence Herron, a private home for seniors in Montreal, after the local health authority, alarmed by staff shortages and the spread of coronavirus at the home, took control of the residence.
They found dehydrated residents lying listless in bed, unfed for days, with excrement seeping out of their diapers.
“I’d never seen anything like it in my 32-year nursing career,” said Loredana Mule, a nurse on the team. “It was horrific — there wasn’t enough food to feed people, the stench could’ve killed a horse.”
After she left the home, she said, she collapsed in her car and wept.
A skeleton staff of two nurses had been left to care for a private residence with nearly 150 beds, she said. The remaining staff had fled amid the outbreak of the coronavirus, leaving patients, some paralyzed or with other chronic illnesses, to fend for themselves.
In announcing the deaths on Saturday, François Legault, the premier of Quebec, said there appeared to be “gross negligence.”
The Montreal police, Quebec’s health ministry and the provincial coroner’s office have begun investigations into the home. Officers from Montreal police’s major crime unit have been sifting through evidence, confiscating files and interviewing employees.
Autopsies of the dead are also expected, though families of relatives said they feared they may never learn the truth about how many residents had died of the virus since many of the bodies had been cremated.
“How is it possible that so many body bags left that place and no one raised the alarm?” Ms. Mule asked.
After discovering the deaths at the Herron, Quebec’s ministry of health this week inspected 40 private homes for the elderly, and Mr. Legault called for volunteers to fill staffing gaps at residences. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Quebec officials had asked the federal government for staffing help for its overwhelmed nursing homes.
Quebec is the Canadian province most severely affected by coronavirus, with 15,857 cases and 630 people dead. Health officials say retirement homes accounted for roughly half of the total deaths in Quebec.
Mr. Legault has blamed Herron’s management for the catastrophe, saying that after the residence was informed last month that a patient had tested positive for the virus, it refused to cooperate with the regional health authority, forcing it to obtain a court order and delaying intervention.
By the time a team of health care workers arrived on March 29, the coronavirus had already invaded.
Résidence Herron is owned by a Quebec real estate company, Katasa, which owns six other retirement residences. A spokesman for the company declined to comment on allegations of negligence.
But Katherine Chowieri, whose father, Samir Chowieri, is president of Katasa and who is a manager at the company, denied negligence to local news outlets, telling them that she blamed the health authority for not heeding the residence’s calls for help as staff left amid a shortage of protective equipment.
On Tuesday, Patrizia Di Biase-Leone learned that her mother, Antonietta Pollice, who turned 97 on March 11 and suffers from dementia, had tested positive for the virus. She said the residence had obfuscated her mother’s condition, even as she suffered symptoms including diarrhea, dehydration and hallucinations.
“Of course, we are gravely concerned about our mom,” she said. “She is emaciated and losing the will to live. We are getting no cooperation. What do we do? Call the cops?”
The glossy website of Résidence Herron touts a nutritionist for personalized meal plans, a bistro cafe, a hairdresser and a full-time nursing staff for its elderly patients.
But families of residents said in interviews that, over several years, they had seen their relatives deprived of basic needs like diapers, exercise, proper hygiene and healthy meals, despite a monthly cost of between 3,000 and 10,000 Canadian dollars to stay there.
When the coronavirus spread to the residence, they said, they desperately struggled to get information about their loved ones, while their pleas to test their relatives for the virus were ignored.
This is not the first time the Herron’s services have come under scrutiny. Last year, a report by Quebec Health and Social Services warned that the home’s palliative care was lacking.
In 1981, Mr. Chowieri, the owner of Résidence Herron, was convicted of drug trafficking, serving about 15 months in prison. One year later he was convicted of fraud. In 1994, a seniors residence he owned was the subject of a money-laundering inquiry by the national police. And in 2002, he was fined $125,000 for tax evasion.
Frédéric Lepage, a spokesman for the company, said Samir Chowieri’s criminal record was expunged in 2014 due to good behavior.
Leane Conti, whose mother, Carole Stewart, 79, is partially paralyzed and was bedridden at Residence Herron for two years, said staff repeatedly refused to lift her mother off her bed to properly bathe her, leading to infections in her legs and feet.
She said she was chided by the residence that her mother was “urinating too much and using too many diapers.”
After her mother came down with a fever in late March and was sent to a nearby hospital, Ms. Conti said she finally learned from the hospital that there was a case of coronavirus at the residence.
Ms. Stewart was sent back to the Herron, where Ms. Conti said she wasn’t quarantined, pending test results. She has since tested positive and has been hospitalized.
“When I learned there were 31 bodies in less than a month at the Herron, I was shocked but not surprised,” she said.