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Sims: Vaccination tweak intended to stamp out stubborn outbreaks at seniors’ homes

Posted: March 26, 2021

(March 25, 2021)

By: Jane Sims, London Free Press

A little tweak is coming to the local vaccination plan in a week or two that makes loads of sense and could finally end the persistent outbreaks showing up in seniors’ home.

“Our hope is within the next one to two weeks that we will be able to distribute vaccine directly out to long-term care homes to deliver to new residents coming in, or staff who are remaining and still need to be vaccinated. We’re well on our way to that,” said Alex Summers, Middlesex-London’s associate medical officer of health.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it’s significant and a good move that might finally stamp out the virus in the places where it loves to live.

I was hoping by now, weeks into the vaccination rollout, that the number of long-term care and retirement homes showing up on the health unit’s dashboard with outbreaks would be a big, fat goose egg.

But on Wednesday, there were five active institutional outbreaks. One of them was on a hospital floor, but the other four were seniors’ homes, two of them long-term care. And, to be fair, an outbreak is declared when there is only one case, resident or staff.

The positive cases aren’t showing up in the residents, all of whom have been vaccinated by now. It’s the staff. They too were at the top of the list when the vaccines arrived in December.

The vaccines are working. Across Ontario on Wednesday there were 52 long-term care outbreaks, but 45 of them didn’t have a resident with a positive case. After a year in which the virus tore through facilities, killing thousands, there are only 11 confirmed positive cases in the people who call these places home.

However, there are 104 positive cases in staff.

So, why are staff still getting sick? Well, it’s complicated.

There were reports of vaccine hesitancy during the early days of vaccine approval. But Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said we are well past that level of distrust and we should be looking at the “chaos” in the distribution plan provincewide.

The root of this is the unpredictable supply chain. Some areas got lots of supply in the first three months and ended up using some of it on non-priority populations, while other areas didn’t have enough to vaccinate vulnerable people and those who care for them, she said.

“It’s rolled out in the most haphazard, chaotic way that one could possibly imagine,” she said.

Look no further than to Lambton County, confined to the grey (lockdown) level of restrictions, where on Wednesday, the province finally agreed there needs to be an infusion of doses after the area had fallen behind in vaccinations.

Remember the 52 long-term care homes in outbreak? Five are in Sarnia.

While Middlesex-London has been consistent in its priority distribution, there are places in eastern Ontario way behind in getting doses to older people, Mehra said.

Early on, some areas needed time to set up their mass vaccination clinics. Both Huron Perth and Southwestern Public Health had their care home workers drive to the Agriplex, sometimes more than an hour away, for their first shots.

Many workers, working long, hard hours to keep people safe, couldn’t find the time. There were sweeps through homes to jab everyone, missing people on their days off or working night shifts.

Mehra said if there was hesitancy over the vaccine’s safety, those concerns should have been addressed in consistent information sessions provincewide and safe spaces given to people to give informed consent.

Plans like what is being proposed in Middlesex-London to circle back and pick up anyone left behind make sense, she said. And down the road, she agreed allowing vaccinated staff to bypass rapid testing would be a good incentive to get everyone protected.

Mehra said more outbreaks are starting to show up in retirement homes where there are people in other parts of Ontario who haven’t had their first shot.

Summers agreed convenience and competing priorities do hinder people from any vaccination. “That’s one of the reasons why it will be important to continue to have ways to roll out vaccine closer to the source,” he said.

And, maybe, we can kick that outbreak list to the curb.

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