Vaccination efforts for frontline healthcare workers at long-term care homes have been underway for months in Ontario as COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available.
Phase one of the province’s roll-out has focused on residents, staff, essential caregivers and other employees of congregate living settings that provide care for seniors including long-term care homes and retirement homes.
And as a result, an estimated 95 per cent of long-term care residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In comparison, a memo from the Ontario Ministry of Long Term Care dated March 8 estimates that two-thirds of staff members have been vaccinated.
It’s not immediately clear why one-third of Ontario’s long-term care staff have yet to be vaccinated, whether it has to do with logistical issues, hesitation to book an appointment, medical reasons preventing staff members from getting the vaccine or other reasons.
But a survey by CBC Thunder Bay of 10 long-term care and retirement homes shows that staff vaccination rates in Thunder Bay, Ont. are largely on par with the provincial average, as of March 15.
Of the facilities surveyed, most homes have staff vaccination rates between 61 per cent and 77 per cent. And in eight of the surveyed homes, one in five staff members have yet to be vaccinated.
Two of the surveyed homes had staff vaccination rates of more than 95 per cent.
Operators of homes have ongoing education campaigns
One thing was made clear by the owners and operators of the homes: there is no deadline for staff to receive their vaccine, and efforts to get as many consenting staff members vaccinated are ongoing.
In a written statement, the president and chief executive officer of St. Joseph’s Care Group Tracy Buckler said, “vaccination is not a ‘one time only’ process. The opportunity to be vaccinated is available to any staff who may have missed the initial roll-out or been hesitant to receive it.”
And the operators of the nursing homes have implemented a range of efforts to encourage staff to book their appointments.
Southbridge Care Homes chief seniors’ advocate Candace Chartier said in an email to CBC, “we have encouraged participation through town halls, one-on-one conversations [and] created educational videos and programs as well.”
Lee Mesic, the administrator of Thunder Bay-owned Pioneer Ridge, said in a written statement, “Pioneer continues to promote vaccination for all staff with ongoing communication, sharing of information, coaching by administration and medical director.”
And that’s exactly the kind of work that needs to continue, says Alain Simard, as associate professor and immunologist with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
“One of the most important things that the healthcare system needs to do is provide that education and awareness of the importance of the vaccine and how they work,” he said.
“Once people realize what they are and that they’re safe, then you start seeing those higher numbers of vaccination rates.”
Staff vaccine rates need to be higher: immunologist
There are many factors that could influence the staff vaccination rates between different homes, Simard added, including previous outbreaks of COVID-19 in a home or higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.
“Potential side effects are normal, and you’ll see that for any drug or any vaccine that’s available,” he said. “But the problem is when these make it to the media, then it can convince some people that the vaccine might not be safe … so then it increases vaccine hesitancy and lowers the rates essentially.”
Simard says he’s also heard people suggesting they don’t need to get the vaccine because “they think that they’re safe.”
“But one of the main reasons why we want to vaccinate people, yes it’s to protect the person themselves, but also to protect other people in the community that might not have gotten the vaccine yet or that can’t get the vaccine.”
Many experts suggest that herd immunity — a phenomenon that occurs when a large enough portion of a community becomes immune to the disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely — for many viruses can occur when roughly 60 to 70 per cent of the population achieves immunity, according to Simard.
But with COVID-19, which is more easily transmissible and has a higher risk of causing severe symptoms than a common flu, Simard says it’s important to have even higher vaccination rates.
That’s especially the case in long-term care and retirement homes, he added.
“These people are at the very highest risk of getting severe symptoms of the disease and even causing death. So it’s important that we do everything we can to try and protect them.”