Uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among staff of Hamilton’s seniors’ homes varies widely depending on the home, but the reasons why are complex.
Recent public health data shows that while vaccinations among seniors’ home residents — both in long-term care and retirement homes — is above 90 per cent at each home listed, staff vaccinations in long-term care ranged from as low as 26.7 per cent all the way to 100 per cent.
In retirement homes, those figures run from 1.1 per cent to 83.3 per cent.
The numbers are an estimated “snapshot” as of March 8 based on data self-reported by the homes. “Vaccine coverage among staff could be under-reported at some facilities due to variation in the policies and procedures for tracking staff vaccination status,” public health notes. Additional staff may also have been vaccinated after public health’s report date.
Palliative-care physician Amit Arya was concerned by the disparities.
“I’m very afraid for the front-line staff who have sacrificed so much through the pandemic,” he said. Yet, the assistant clinical professor at McMaster University says he’s “sadly not surprised” at the numbers.
Inoculations among senior home staff has been a concern for public health officials, workers’ unions, and experts alike. Staff are often the main contacts for vulnerable residents in senior homes who may otherwise not have consented — or been eligible — for vaccines. For residents with weak immune systems, Arya says the vaccine may not be as effective as it might be in other groups.
“The most important point is the lives of these staff actually matter,” he said, noting COVID poses “serious risks” to younger populations, too. “We want to protect the staff and we don’t want them to be vulnerable and at risk from a deadly virus like COVID-19.”
Heritage Green Nursing Home in Stoney Creek had the lowest vaccination rate for long-term care staff at 26.7 per cent. Scott Kozachenko, the home’s administrator declined to comment on Tuesday. SEIU Healthcare, which represents workers at the home, was not able to immediately provide any information.
At Shalom Village, where Hamilton had its second-worst outbreak, the staff vaccination rate was 65.3 per cent, just below the average of 67.9 per cent for long-term care. It’s also below the 69 per cent rate The Spectator previously reported using numbers provided by Shalom.
In an email, spokesperson Laurie Pringle said the home has 263 staff in total, of which 74 are “casual/occasional” or “on leave.” Though she said the home offered those staff appointments, they didn’t want them to “feel pressured in any way to do anything work related — including vaccinations.”
Out of the 189 full-time “active” staff at the home, Pringle says 137 staff received vaccinations directly through Shalom — i.e. before public health opened its portal for health-care workers. She said at least 20 additional staff reported receiving their vaccines after that, bringing the total number of vaccinated staff to 157. That makes Shalom’s vaccination rate 83 per cent for active staff, or 60 per cent of overall staff.
It’s unclear if public health used a home’s total or active staff in its calculation, but spokesperson James Berry said in an email that the values posted online “have been validated by the facilities.”
In an interview, Pringle said Shalom supported staff vaccinations by sharing public health information about the vaccines within the home, and excusing staff from work to go to their vaccination appointments without docking pay.
“If they booked the vaccination during personal time, we did not reimburse them for their time, but we did offer a ride to and from the clinic to offset any inconvenience or travel costs,” she noted in an email. She personally offered to drive staff individually to the clinic throughout January, she said, noting she purchased a plastic barrier for her vehicle as a precaution.
But Pringle says only a few people took her up on the offer. She also shared her own vaccination experience on social media, and the home asked staff to share their experiences with colleagues on a “grassroots level.”
“We were doing everything we could to ... make it possible for people to get the vaccine if they wanted to,” Pringle said.
Although a mobile clinic visited the Westdale home twice, the priority was to vaccinate residents. Pringle says if there were leftover doses, staff or caregivers could receive them.
“Once you open the vial, you have to use it all,” she said. “There were a couple of doses left, so we did vaccinate a couple of non-permanent Shalom Village staff who were here because it was a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing.”
Pringle said about 20 staff and/or essential caregivers received vaccines this way.
She added that Shalom’s staff have worked “like troopers” and the home continues to seek their input to better support them.
“If there’s stuff that I need to know that can help us better serve them, then I need people to feel like they can trust me to tell me that.”
Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator