After more than a year, bingo and movie nights are back at Chester Village, one of the first long-term care homes in Ontario to fully vaccinate almost all of its residents against the coronavirus.
Some 202 of the nursing home’s 203 residents and 80 per cent of the staff received their second COVID-19 vaccine shot in January – and life is slowly returning to normal, much to the relief of the seniors.
“It’s opened up a bit,” said Jane Burns, 66, who has been living at the not-for-profit facility in Toronto since February 2020.
“People are downstairs a bit more, which is good, seeing different people.”
Another resident, 79-year-old Edward Hayes, has had a lucky run so far, winning twice since the bingo games resumed last month.
Even though the home is continuing to practise physical distancing, Hayes said “it’s nice to be able to go downstairs” to the activity hall as well as exercise with the other folks.
The house also recently opened up its café, where residents can enjoy a snack or hot drink.
Across the country, a majority of the long-term care homes in different provinces have been vaccinated with at least a single dose.
By the end of last week, all eligible residents – more than 8,800 – in 125 long-term care homes across Manitoba had been fully vaccinated with two doses, a government spokesperson confirmed to Global News.
All 29,233 residents, except those too sick or otherwise unable to receive both doses, at publicly funded continuing care facilities (long-term care and designated supportive living) in Alberta are also fully immunized.
In Quebec, more than 35,000 – nearly 88 percent – long-term care (LTC) residents had been vaccinated with one dose as of March 2, according to the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS).
Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network hospitals in Toronto, said the vaccines are starting to bear fruit for the country’s most vulnerable population.
“What we’re seeing right now is that in many of the provinces where we’ve actually vaccinated pretty much our entire LTC populations, we’re actually starting to see that deaths are plummeting and outbreaks are plummeting in those settings.
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“And that’s positive news.”
In a news conference on Thursday, Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said cases in long-term care homes have declined “dramatically” since the vaccinations began.
“Just before Christmas, we had 200-plus infections in long-term care residents and today, it’s a dozen or so.
“So we’re seeing the benefits of that first and second dose take effect in our population.”
From December’s peak, active cases in Alberta’s long-term care facilities have declined by more than 95 per cent and by over 92 per cent in designated supported living facilities for seniors, Premier Jason Kenney said at a news conference March 1.
In British Columbia, where 95 per cent of the LTC residents have received their first dose, there were only six remaining outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of March 2, according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.
In the largest province of Ontario, some 15 per cent (94 out of 626) of long-term care homes were dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks as of March 4 – down from a record high of 40 per cent in January.
Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA), said while these were encouraging signs, more work needs to be done to vaccinate front-line staff, especially those who are hesitant to get the shots.
“We need to make sure that we continue to be vigilant because our residents are still vulnerable, even with a vaccine,” she told Global News.
“We still have significant staffing pressures and staffing shortages and we know that community spread really is one of the primary root causes and indicators for outbreaks in our homes.”
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.
Jacquie Gross, who got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Feb. 19, says nothing has changed at her assisted care seniors’ lodge in Barrhead, Alta.
She is expected to get the second shot later this month.
“We are still eating on paper plates with plastic cutlery and exercise equipment is under a tarp in the parking garage,” the 78-year-old told Global News.
“The hairdresser and footcare people are still not allowed to come in to offer their services.
“Even when requested they won’t even put on a movie for some to watch.”
“Our mental health is declining,” said Gross, who has been living with her husband at Klondike Place since October 2018.
Restrictions will be eased as per provincial guidance from the chief medical officer, said Janet Zilinski, human resources generalist at Barrhead and District Social Housing Association, which runs the Klondike Place lodge.
Tight COVID-19 measures have meant fewer visits from family members and restrictions on in-person social gatherings at long-term care homes.
Duncan says she is hopeful this will change as we move through spring into summer.
“It’s been a long year and a long time for families to be separated.”
Sinha said when there are significant gaps between the vaccination rates of residents and staff, there could be a risk of infection and complications.
“Prioritizing the vaccination of essential family caregivers is important before any decision on lifting restrictions can be made,” he said.
“I think we’ll soon be able to say that if your bubble is fully vaccinated, you may be able to actually relax some precautions.”
Public health officials are looking at data about the effectiveness of the vaccines after the first and second dose. So far, no guidance has been issued concerning the restrictions after vaccination.
At Chester Village, despite the easing of some restrictions, residents are looking forward to the day when they have more freedom and can go out.
“My wish is when the food starts coming in once a month. I always liked that they came from different restaurants and we could go down,” Jeannette Day, 62, said.
Meanwhile, Burns is looking forward to the day when the ballet recitals open up again and she can visit her brother for coffee and enjoy her favourite cake: orange and cranberry.
“We just need the rest of the world to catch up,” she said.