COVID-19 booster shots needed in seniors homes now, care providers say

Residents of seniors homes need COVID-19 booster shots now — not in October, as planned — amid increasing outbreaks, the president of the B.C. Care Providers Association said Thursday.

Terry Lake, a former B.C. health minister, said immunity is waning in long-term care residents, as evidenced by the positive cases and deaths in these facilities. Thirty-five people have tested positive at Sunset Lodge, and one has died, in one of 19 outbreaks in B.C.’s hospitals, long-term care, assisted and independent living facilities.

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“I think we’re seeing enough evidence in long-term care at the moment to support the view that immunity is waning and that that third shot needs to be given as soon as possible,” Lake said in a phone interview Thursday.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week that boosters for residents are coming in October, but Lake said that’s too far away. “I think it’s clear we need to do it as soon as possible. We don’t want anyone else to lose their lives.”

The elderly are disproportionately affected by serious illness and death as a result of COVID‑19, with the majority of COVID-related deaths in long-term care homes. Of 33 deaths from July 30 to Aug. 26, one-third were residents of long-term care.

In new modelling presented this week, Henry said many areas continue to see spillover from unvaccinated community members into long-term care and assisted living.

Lake said that like vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations in health-care workers, boosters are an inevitability. “Let’s just get on with it and protect people.”

The province’s seniors advocate also said this week that boosters in long-term care are needed now. The advocate’s office is working on the final phase of a report on the impact of COVID-19 in long-term care and assisted living.

Island Health reported eight new cases at Sunset Lodge on Wednesday and one more on Friday, bringing the number infected to 35 — 20 residents and 15 staff — since the long-term care home declared the outbreak on Aug. 27.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before vaccines were widely available, health-care workers inadvertently brought COVID-19 into long-term care homes, said Lake. But now, there’s no doubt unvaccinated workers are putting residents at risk, he said.

“If someone dies because you did not get vaccinated and brought the virus in … I believe, in some way it should be viewed as criminal,” said Lake. “I’m not sure that anyone would be ever be charged for that, but — and I think a lot of people would agree — knowing what we know, putting people at risk, and possibly leading to their death, is in my mind criminal.”

On Aug. 12, Henry ordered all workers in long-term care and assisted living to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12 as a requirement of employment in seniors homes. A similar vaccine mandate is expected to be announced for all health-care workers in the province.

Lake said vaccines made a “huge difference” after the second wave and everyone thought “the light at the end of the tunnel was there,” but the combination of the Delta variant, waning immunity and low staff vaccination rates in some care homes is posing new challenges.

“So those three, that combination of things are coming to together, is causing a huge increase in outbreaks around the province, and, unfortunately, people are losing their lives when we thought we were through this,” said Lake.

Based on the pace of vaccination in the early days, no one saw the fourth wave coming the way it has, said Lake. Public health officials have simultaneously been dealing with a worsening opioid overdose crisis, heat waves and the effects of forest fires.

“It’s been pretty punishing and I know people in that ministry are working as hard as they can — as people are throughout the health-care system — so we haven’t done everything perfectly, but I don’t know if we could have done things better,” Lake said.

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