Many elderly Canadians are still facing barriers to getting vaccinated against COVID-19 despite an overwhelming willingness to get vaccinated, a new report warns.
The analysis from the National Institute of Ageing (NIA) at Ryerson University says that gap could lead to more deaths among the country’s senior population and potentially stands in the way of Canada achieving herd immunity, worsening the effects of a growing third wave of the pandemic.
“Eliminating the barriers older Canadians face in accessing COVID-19 vaccines is critical,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at the NIA and lead author of the report, in a statement Thursday.
“Providing older adults with vaccination is a highly efficient and effective strategy for protecting Canada’s most vulnerable population while also slowing the virus’ spread.”
Federal data shows roughly 72 per cent of Canadians aged 75 and over have received at least one vaccine dose as of April 3.
Yet the NAI analysis of multiple polls finds a far higher number of seniors are eager to get inoculated — more than 90 per cent of those over 75 — creating a gap that the report’s authors say is due to multiple barriers.
The report lays out five recommendations for provincial authorities to adopt in their vaccination campaigns to help drive up inoculation rates among seniors, who the authors say continue to face the greatest risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
The recommendations include creating targeted information campaigns for older adults from different cultural backgrounds and addressing language barriers and some hesitancy among Indigenous and Black Canadian seniors.
Provinces should also provide more options to book vaccination appointments and expand administration to primary care providers, pharmacies and community clinics, the report says.
Mobile outreach strategies should also be considered to reach homebound seniors and other communities where older Canadians live, similar to how vaccines were brought directly to long-term care homes, according to the report.
Finally, the report recommends shortening the window between the first and second doses for older Canadians from the current four-month window recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
Experts have previously warned that the four-month interval, which is currently being reviewed and is unique to Canada, is riskier for seniors.
Early research from the University of British Columbia also found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine produced a much weaker antibody result in long-term care residents than it did in younger, healthier people.
Only 10 per cent of Canadians over the age of 80 have received both required doses, according to federal data up to April 3, out of the 80 per cent of total vaccine recipients in that age group to date.
“Integrating these strategies into provincial and territorial vaccine rollout plans has the potential to save lives and move our communities closer to herd immunity faster,” Sinha said.
“In line with federal guidelines, and medical and scientific evidence, governments must continue to prioritize older Canadians and close the gap to ensure those who want the vaccine have access to one as quickly as possible.”
As the focus shifts to younger people who are suffering greater proportions of serious illness due to more transmissible and deadly variants of the coronavirus, the report says it’s still important to ensure complete inoculation of the senior population.
That age group will also be vulnerable as younger Canadians voice hesitancy to vaccinations due to safety concerns over the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which have been linked to reports of blood clots in some recipients.
“If younger segments of the population refuse or delay getting vaccinated, this will exacerbate vaccination coverage gaps, further hindering efforts to protect the health and well-being of Canada’s most vulnerable groups,” the report says.
“This again supports the need to comprehensively vaccinate its older population.”
The report also finds shortfalls in some provinces’ rush to open up vaccine eligibility for younger Canadians before completely inoculating older populations, suggesting those groups are being left behind.
It presents a case study comparing the rollouts in Ontario and Quebec. While some health units in Ontario gave shots to regulated health professionals like massage therapists and naturopaths — even as elderly residents still waited for their shots — Quebec prioritized residents over 80 across the province before expanding access as supply and coverage increased.
The results outlined in the report are striking: by mid-March, only 40 per cent of vaccine doses in Ontario had been administered to residents aged 65 and older, compared to nearly 70 per cent in Quebec.
Quebec also achieved a 77 per cent immunity rate for adults aged 80 and over nearly two weeks before Ontario did, according to the report.
The NAI says the case study proves that while expanding vaccine access to other age groups is necessary, it “should not be done at the expense of adequately addressing vaccine gaps amongst Canada’s most vulnerable population — older Canadians.”
— with files from Global’s Saba Aziz
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