The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) says it isn’t tracking what percentage of seniors’ home staff have opted not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
When the region begin its vaccination rollout at the start of the year, officials said they were concerned about the degree of vaccine hesitancy among staff at seniors homes, and said it was important that as many as possible receive the vaccines being offered.
But three months later, as the vaccination program starts to move on to other groups outside of long term care homes, the region says it doesn’t know how many staff in the homes declined to be immunized. The province is also not tracking that data.
At the start of the vaccination program in December and January, Windsor Regional Hospital conducted a poll which found at that time that 21 per cent of staff from seniors’ facilities, roughly one in five, were either refusing or delaying vaccination.
In Chatham-Kent, staff vaccination in long-term care homes is only at around 50 percent. That is much less than what the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. David Colby, says he is hoping for. Colby notes that recent press surrounding the Astrazeneca vaccine may be playing a role in increasing vaccine hesitancy.
Concern about data gap
A McMaster University infectious disease specialist says not having information on unvaccinated staff members may make it harder to address or prevent outbreaks.
Dr. Zain Chagla says that knowing how many staff members are vaccinated is important when it comes to reopening safely.
“Staff, given they can be the link to many outbreaks, are an important part of this.” He adds, “I think knowing if these places are covered is probably good to know for planning long term.”
Hamilton is one region that is tracking the immunization rates in long term care homes. One of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the city was in seniors’ home Heritage Green Nursing Home. While 94 percent of residents in the home have been immunized, only 27 percent of staff are vaccinated.
In Windsor-Essex some families of residents also hope to see all staff vaccinated.
Eugene’s mother Jeanette is a resident of retirement home Amica Riverside, where 90 percent of the staff have been vaccinated with the home saying it has more staff awaiting vaccination.
“I think the policy needs to be just like the government said, let’s give the maximum protection to those who are our vulnerable people, put an iron ring around the homes.”
Eugene’s last name is being withheld by CBC News out of concern regarding the continued home care of his mother.
“She’s going through some stages of Alzheimer’s and that makes things difficult for her to hang on to requirements like washing your hands regularly, don’t touch your face,” he said.
“She has a hard time remembering or understanding why it’s important.”
While his mother has received two shots of vaccine, Eugene says that he is worried that an outbreak may be possible if the portion of staff unvaccinated continue working in close proximity to residents.
Eugene’s younger brother expressed this concern to the retirement home but was informed that the home has to do what the public health unit says.
Public health response
The public health unit notes that during an outbreak, unvaccinated staff are excluded from the facility.
However, when asked whether the unit would consider preemptively barring unvaccinated staff from working in homes, the unit says there has not been direction from the province based on existing guidance.
As of last week, 7,160 staff and residents in Windsor-Essex long-term care homes and retirement homes have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Long-Term Care did not indicate whether it was considering barring unvaccinated staff from seniors’ homes prior to an outbreak.
The Ministry of Health also informed CBC News that in the province over 70,000 staff members received their first shot, but they also do not track the number of staff who have refused shots.
It also added employers may choose to set their own policies for vaccinations with their employees.