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Ontario blames shortages for unfinished COVID-19 vaccinations in long-term care

Posted: February 12, 2021

(February 11, 2021)

By: Rob Ferguson, Muskoka Region (Metroland Media Group)

Ontario is blaming a shortage of vaccines for falling shy of its latest target to get first COVID-19 shots into vulnerable residents of long-term care.

About 9,200 seniors in 41 nursing homes were awaiting the chance at initial jabs, the government said Wednesday, as 11 more residents died despite a dramatic and welcome decline in infections over the last month.

“We don’t have the vaccines” Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton told the Star. “We could have been doing much more.”

Fullerton said 61,681 residents had been given first shots as of Tuesday night, with almost half having received boosters to complete the process of bolstering their immune systems.

The new target to complete first doses is “as soon as possible,” perhaps within days, she added.

To date, 93 per cent of Ontario’s nursing homes have been reached by mobile vaccination teams since the first doses arrived in mid-December.

The Wednesday target was moved back from Feb. 5 because of reduced shipments to the federal government from Pfizer and Moderna, with both manufacturers citing production issues. Ottawa passes on vaccines to the provinces on a proportional basis.

Those unexpected shortages forced Ontario to abandon its strategy of vaccinating seniors in care homes, front-line health workers and essential caregivers on parallel tracks. Instead, it has focused solely on nursing-home residents, along with second doses for doctors, nurses and others injected early on.

Since Jan. 31, when 59,116 long-care residents had been vaccinated according to government figures released last week, 2,565 more shots had been given as of Tuesday night.

Premier Doug Ford’s government has faced widespread criticism for not focusing on long-term care from the start, given the heavy toll that COVID-19 has taken in the sector, where almost 15,000 residents and 6,500 staff have tested positive for the virus since it first arrived a year ago. At least 3,683 residents and 11 staff have died.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said it is “appalling” that first shots have not been completed with more contagious new variants circulating, such as the B.1.17 strain blamed in a lightning-fast January outbreak at Barrie’s Roberta Place nursing home that infected all the residents and killed almost half.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long in the first place. Lives could have been saved. The human suffering has been just enormous.”

Almost 1,000 people have died in nursing homes this year alone, the Ontario Health Coalition said Wednesday, faulting the province for not bringing in strict lockdown and stay-at-home measures sooner to reduce community spread that found its way into long-term care.

“Failure to act quickly enough … has been a fatal political choice by the Ford government,” said executive director Natalie Mehra.

Fullerton acknowledged the community spread was “simply overwhelming” for some homes but said decisions on lockdowns and a stay-at-home order imposed by Ford on Jan. 12 are a “balance of risks” between health and the economy.

A former family doctor, the minister pointed to sharp drops in infection rates in long-term care in the last few weeks, thanks to the twin effects of increasing vaccination rates and Ford’s Jan. 12 stay-at-home order which has succeed in cutting daily new cases from around 4,000 to just under 1,100 on Wednesday.

There are 394 residents out of 70,900 in Ontario’s 626 nursing homes with active cases of the virus, compared with the most recent peak of 1,632 reported in mid-January. At 568, staff infections are half the level of a month ago.

“We are doing much better,” said Fullerton.

The numbers prove the government could have saved more lives by imposing restrictions sooner and vaccinating nursing homes faster, said Horwath.

“It shows when you take action you can have positive results.”

Liberal MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South) said the province erred by not making long-term care the sole initial priority, leaving others until later.

“It has been 58 days since our first vaccine shipments arrived and over 400,000 doses have been administered in the province, more than enough to provide first doses to every one of the 70,000 residents,” he added.

“We also know that Ontario has had enough doses to vaccinate every (nursing home) resident since the end of December. Other provinces have been finished for weeks. Every day counts and there has been no sense of urgency with this government.”

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