Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last March, long-term care homes across Canada have been hit particularly hard, with outbreaks taking a physical and mental toll on residents, family members and staff.
Now, with COVID-19 vaccines being gradually rolled out to priority groups, including LTC homes, there is a sense of hope and relief, even as many continue to mourn the tragic loss of their loved ones.
“I’m glad it’s happening now. I wish that would have been sooner,” said Jennifer Penney, who lost her 81-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Boxing Day last month, about the vaccine rollout.
With multiple underlying health conditions, Yvette Brauch was at a greater risk of severe illness with COVID-19. But there was also neglect due to a lack of staff at the Oakwood Park Lodge in Niagara Falls, her daughter says.
“As hard as it is to say, a vaccine probably would have saved my mother,” Penney, 53, told Global News.
Nearly 40 per cent of Ontario’s long-term care homes are currently reporting COVID-19 outbreaks, marking a new record for the province, according to the latest provincial data. LTC residents there account for almost 60 per cent of the total deaths so far.
Even as vaccines continue to roll out, health officials say it will take a while before the number of cases and deaths start going down.
“You’re actually going to be probably looking at that growth and death accelerating even after we get more and more penetration with the vaccine,” said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, at a media briefing on Tuesday.
In an emailed response to Global News, he explained, “The vaccine will help but the coverage and the time for the vaccine to take effect will not be sufficient to immediately break the numbers.”
In the largest province of Ontario, some 630 long-term care homes employ over 100,000 people and serve a population of approximately 78,000 residents, according to Mark Nesbitt, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Long-Term Care.
The Ontario government is aiming to vaccinate all residents, health-care workers and caregivers in long-term care homes in hotspot regions by Jan. 21 with a first dose.
Over 26,000 vaccinations have been administered to health-care workers and nearly 1,000 doses given to residents in LTC and retirement homes, official data from the province released last week showed.
Meanwhile, in British Columbia, as of Monday, there were at least 50 ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in assisted living, long-term care homes and seniors’ rental buildings.
Up till Jan. 3, 20 per cent of LTC residents and 48 per cent of staff members across B.C had been vaccinated.
Experts and advocates say the pace of the vaccinations should be picked up to prevent further damage, but also cautioned that more outbreaks are to be expected even after vaccination campaigns begin.
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“We need to roll out vaccines to long-term care residents in workers now, as quickly as possible,” Jean-Paul Soucy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and PhD student at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
“Doing this quickly will save many lives, as outbreaks in our long-term care homes are out of control in many provinces and are responsible for a huge fraction of deaths,” he said.
In Quebec, where a province-wide curfew has been imposed to slow the spread of the virus, nursing homes continue to remain COVID-19 hot spots.
“I think it’s a reflection not only of the people who reside in the long-term care facilities, but it’s also a reflection of how our long-term care facility care, as a whole, needs to be revised,” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and a medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.
As of Wednesday, 99,510 people out of a total of 365,000 residents and health workers at Quebec’s LTC homes had been vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
Benoit Masse, a public health expert at the University of Montreal, believes the province could begin to see some improvement by the end of January, once it finishes vaccinating those in long-term care homes.
Things should look even better by March, when most of those over 80 could be immunized, he told the Canadian Press.
Raising awareness amid hesitancy
With the help of the Women’s College Hospital and UHN in Toronto, Kensington Health, a non-profit organization, started vaccinating residents, staff and essential caregivers at its long-term care facility last week.
Since the start of the pandemic, the home for 350 senior residents with over 400 staff members has reported a total 319 days in COVID-19 outbreak and eight deaths — all during the first wave.
Gordon Lawson, who has not seen most of his family except one sister for almost a year due to COVID-19 restrictions, was among the 426 people who got the Moderna shot at the premises last Tuesday. His second dose is scheduled for Feb. 3.
“Everything seems to be positive so far,” said the 67-year-old who is living with paraplegia, before adding while laughing: “I just don’t like needles.”
Bill O’Neill, vice president of residential and community care at Kensington Health, told Global News: “Everybody is seeing this as a potential light at the end of the tunnel for the virus.”
“We all know it’s going to be a while yet, but certainly having a majority of our residents vaccinated already is a huge relief for us,” he said.
But despite the optimism, some are also hesitant to get vaccinated.
Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, said it is important to educate people on the nature of vaccines, the potential side effects as well as the benefits of getting immunized.
She told Global News the risk of not having a vaccine over the last 10 months has been “devastating” for LTC homes.
“We need to embrace this vaccine as the most important weapon we’re going to have against COVID and the most important tool we have to protect our residents in long-term care going forward, knowing that we still have weeks, if not months ahead of us.“
— with files from Global News’ Linda Boyle and The Canadian Press.