Woman urges mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for long-term care staff amid outbreak in Ontario

The daughter of one long-term care resident in Ontario says staff who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 pose a significant risk to those living within the homes, and is calling for mandatory shots for all workers.

Patricia Tomasi’s mother, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), has been living at the Maple Health Centre in Vaughan, ON., since Sept. 2019.

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She was fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus back in February, along with most of the other residents in her home, Tomasi said.

Then it came time for the home’s staff members to receive their shots.

“We were like great — all the staff are going to be fully vaccinated as well,” she said.

However, Tomasi claims administration has told her that only around 60 per cent of the home’s staff have received a shot so far.

“So now they’re causing outbreaks,” Tomasi said. “We’re getting emails every day from the home saying, ‘oh, more staff have COVID’ — So there continues to be an outbreak.”

In fact, an email sent from Maple Health Centre to family members on Friday said there are currently nine staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“This is change of +eight from May 19, 2021,” the email shared with Global News says. “Five staff cases are recovered/resolved.”

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In an email to Global News, Patrick Casey, director of corporate communications at the Regional Municipality of York, said Maple Health Centre is now experiencing its third confirmed COVID-19 outbreak, as of May 4.

“As of May 22, 2021, there have been 15 cases among staff, and three cases among residents,” the email read.

Because of this, Tomasi said her mother and other residents have been isolated in their rooms, and can’t go outside for visits with their loved ones, even though the province recently lifted restrictions to allow this.

Tomasi said her mother’s mental health has gone “completely down the tubes.”

“Her hopes are dashed, she thinks this is never going to be over,” she said. “She now has anxiety, she’s on anxiety meds, methadone (and) her M.S. has gotten worse.”

She hasn’t hugged or touched her grandkids in over a year.”

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Tomasi said the situation is “just horrendous,” adding that she doesn’t know why COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory for staff working with vulnerable populations at LTC homes.

“If staff are choosing not to get vaccinated, when is this nightmare ever going to end?”

On top of the mental health concerns, Tomasi said she and her family are also worried her mother could potentially catch COVID-19 from one of the staff members at Maple Health Centre.

“It’s a huge concern, especially because she’s immunocompromised with MS,” she said. “Yes, she’s fully vaccinated, but I mean that was back in February.”

She said she is worried the immunity from the vaccines her mother received in February could wear off soon.

“There’s no indication about any booster shot or anything like that,” she added. “So of course we’re concerned (about) that as well.”

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Asked to confirm how many staff members at the home have received a shot, Casey said staffing at LTC homes levels “fluctuate,” adding that they sometimes make use of part-time and agency staff.

“As a result, we are unable to report the percentage of staff who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, or who is fully vaccinated,” the email read.

Further, Casey said COVID-19 vaccination is a “personal health decision” and is “not mandatory.”

He added, though, that they continue to “strongly encourage COVID-19 vaccination for our staff, health care workers and all individuals who are eligible and able to receive a vaccine.”

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He said York Regional Public Health has been working with long-term care homes across the region to “continue to increase vaccination rates,” adding that mobile vaccination teams have visited Maple Health Centre in the past.

Casey said “many staff” have also chosen to receive their vaccine at a public health or hospital clinic.

What has the province said?

Staff members, essential caregivers and residents of long-term care homes in Ontario have been eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines since Phase 1 of the province’s rollout plan, which began in December of 2020.

In an email to Global News, Aslan Hart, a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care said as of Saturday, 88 per cent of the province’s LTC staff had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, and 54 per cent had received both doses.

“Additionally 97 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated, and 99 per cent of long-term care essential caregivers have had their first dose,” the email read.

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Hart said the ministry continues to “strongly encourage all staff as well as caregivers and family members to roll up their sleeves to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are eligible to do so.”

“This is the surest way we can protect those living and working in long-term care homes,” the email read.

But, Hart said there “may be reasons individuals have not received a vaccine, including vaccine hesitancy.”

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In order to combat this, Hart said the province has produced a toolkit translated into twelve languages to help “build awareness, debunk myths, and educate people about vaccination and continue our efforts with sector partners to increase vaccination rates among long-term care staff in every home.”

The province also has also added LTC home workers, nurses and personal support workers as well as essential caregivers to the list of people eligible to receive their second COVID-19 shot earlier than the recommended four-month interval.

The ministry did not say, though, whether the province was looking into making vaccines mandatory for LTC home staff.

Why have some staff not yet been vaccinated?

In an email to Global News, Corey Johnson, head of strategic communications at SEIU Healthcare — a union which represents staff in many of Ontario’s LTC homes — said many LTC home workers are living paycheck to paycheck.
“The fear of being forced to take unpaid time off if they react to the vaccine is very real for many workers,” he wrote. “Some also struggle to pay for the added costs like transportation, parking, etc.”

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Johnson said SEIU Healthcare has had “many educationals” with its members advising them to get vaccinated, and to teach them about vaccines.

“It has always been our opinion to get whichever vaccine you can, as soon as you can,” he said.

Johnson noted, though, that SEIU Healthcare does not represent workers at Maple Health Centre.

By the numbers

The first wave of the pandemic devastated Canada’s senior population.

According to Health Canada, approximately 19.9 per cent of the country’s COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in those 70 to 79, with around 66.2 per cent having occurred in those 80 or older.

Read more: Long-term care facilities are the only option for many. What happens when they fall short?

Ontario’s LTC homes were especially hard-hit. According to provincial data, since April 24, 2020, there have been 22,340 COVID-19 cases reported in the province’s LTC homes.

Of those, 15,286 have been among residents, while 7,072 cases were reported among staff members.

A total of 3,783 deaths, have occurred in Ontario’s long term care homes — 3,770 of which were residents. Thirteen staff members have also died after testing positive for COVID-19 in the province.

Currently, 34 of the 626 LTC homes in Ontario are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.

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