CAMH urges province to send more COVID-19 vaccine after dwindling supply forces closure of clinic for mentally ill, developmentally disabled

·5 min read

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was forced to close its community COVID-19 vaccine clinic — the only one in Toronto to prioritize people with a mental illness diagnosis and those with developmental disabilities — after it stopped receiving doses.

The psychiatric teaching hospital’s president is now urging Ontario’s vaccine task force to make these vulnerable groups a priority in its own vaccine distribution and to redirect more vaccine to CAMH.

In a letter to Dr. Homer Tien, head of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, CAMH president Dr. Catherine Zahn said despite the inclusion of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities in the province’s Phase 2 vaccine rollout, the hospital had received a “small and unpredictable” supply when it operated its community vaccine clinic starting at the end of March. The clinic was open only three days a week as a result, despite high demand and capacity to administer more doses.

Last week, the clinic was forced to close after the hospital was informed it would not be receiving any more doses, Zahn wrote in the letter shared with the Star. In an interview, Zahn said she was disappointed when she heard CAMH would not receive more vaccines.

“In my heart, I wanted to believe that would not be true, and that some miracle would happen and vaccines would materialize, but they did not,” Zahn said.

In her letter to Tien, Zahn said the failure to provide the required vaccine supply to CAMH despite the inclusion of people with mental illness in Phase 2 of the rollout is “unfair.” She added many CAMH patients and others with complex mental illnesses live in hot spots, and are still waiting for a potentially life-saving dose.

Research shows people with complex mental illnesses are not only at high-risk of contracting COVID-19, but a schizophrenia diagnosis can increase the risk of serious illness and death from the virus. People with developmental disabilities are also at higher risk, with large-scale studies in the U.K. showing they were 3.7 times more likely to die of COVID-19 in the first and second waves of the pandemic.

In addition to urging Tien to send more vaccine their way, Zahn also requested for CAMH to be considered in distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — one recommended by experts for unhoused populations as it requires only one dose.

CAMH is Canada’s largest mental health hospital, and has been the first in Toronto to offer vaccines specifically for people with a mental illness diagnosis. It also launched a pilot clinic for outpatients with developmental disabilities and their caregivers on Monday, said Dr. Yona Lunsky, director of the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre at the hospital, where around 40 people were able to receive their doses — the last of the hospital’s remaining supply.

CAMH has since been given some doses to operate a one-time clinic for people over the age of 18 living in the M6K postal code next week, due to the hospital’s proximity to the neighbourhood. But the hospital still has no word on when it will receive doses to continue operating its community clinic for people with mental illnesses.

In a response to the Star on CAMH’s concerns, David Jensen, a spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott, said people with developmental disabilities will be eligible to book a vaccine through the province starting May 3, and people with mental illnesses can book starting May 10.

“Ontario continues to roll out its vaccine plan based on age and risk,” Jensen said. “This approach is designed to save lives, protect those at risk of serious illness and to stop the virus from spreading.”

Jensen added supply of vaccines and shipment delays continue to be a challenge, and have led to Ontario receiving only half of its expected Moderna vaccines on April 19.

While the supply chain of vaccines in Canada has been a broader issue, Zahn said her request is about making sure people with mental illness are among those who are prioritized with the available doses, as they are eligible under the current phase of the vaccine rollout.

“We require an equitable vaccine supply,” Zahn wrote to Tien.

Lunsky said some people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers have experienced barriers when trying to access vaccines under the current rollout, a system criticized by many across the province as confusing to navigate. She said CAMH’s specialized, pilot clinic was designed with the aim to eliminate as many of those barriers as possible.

Disability advocates had been vocal about barriers to access, including confusion around eligibility. For some people with developmental disabilities, accommodation is also needed for them and their caregivers to ensure the inoculation process is smooth and accessible, Lunsky added.

“There’s a lot of questions in the disability community about, ‘How do I prepare? What is it going to be like when I get there? Is it going to be loud? Could I be sitting with my loved one?’” Lunsky said. “Some people can manage with accommodations in a regular clinic, but some people need something more specialized.”

Lunsky said their clinic was kept small and ensured people were able to remain with their caregivers throughout the whole process if they wished.

People were given different sitting options like a bean bag chair or yoga ball when receiving their vaccine, and fidget items and noise cancelling headphones were provided to help those who were anxious or experiencing pain. Each person was also assigned one clinician, in case they needed assistance and for better continuity of care.

“It’s really important to think about the vaccine process as a process where people will want to get their second dose,” Lunsky said. “The more positive you can make that experience as possible, the better.”

The hope is to provide similar pop-up clinics in the near future for those who need them, Lunsky said. As to when that would happen, and how many would be able to access it, Zahn said it all depends on when CAMH receives more vaccines.

“If you would be able to see how we were able to come and support individuals and groups, you would understand why it’s so important to have this type of facility,” Zahn said.

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_

Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star