Researchers study COVID-19 vaccine's impact on long-term care residents and staff in B.C., Alberta

·3 min read

A new study is investigating how the immune systems of elderly residents and staff in Canadian long-term care facilities respond to COVID-19 infection, now that vaccinations in the homes are either well underway or completed.

The research, based in B.C. and Alberta, will examine how the immune systems of elderly people armed with the vaccine respond to infection.

"Residents who are exposed can now help us understand more about how immunity develops and why elderly individuals have been so vulnerable to the virus," said Mel Krajden, a leadership group member of the national COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and head of the public health lab at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

In addition to their work on immunity, there is a second part to the studies in each province.

In B.C., researchers will also assess the viral, immunological and social factors around long-term care outbreaks to try to better understand why the illness proved so deadly in so many homes.

Dr. Marc Romney, the head of medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul's Hospital and a clinical associate professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine, is leading the B.C. study.

He said the research will examine the immune systems of elderly patients and how vaccines protect them.

"What we are trying to do is first of all look at the natural immunity after infection in elderly individuals, but also after vaccination compared to healthy health-care workers, basically younger people," explained Romney.

Romney said researchers want to enrol 200 people in the study including elderly people living in long-term care homes and healthcare workers.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

For the second part of the Alberta study, researchers will monitor sewage wastewater in an attempt to create an early warning system that would detect outbreaks in long-term care facilities sooner and, ideally, enable officials to respond faster to slow the spread.

"Detection of [the coronavirus] SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater provides an early sign that the virus is circulating, typically before we see a clinical diagnosis of COVID-19," wrote the study's principal investigator, Xiaoli Pang, who is a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Alberta.

The federal government announced Wednesday it is investing more than $2 million to fund the studies through the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. The team, created last April, is made up of volunteer experts from across the country who have been tasked with researching immunity against COVID-19.

Seniors in long-term care facilities across Canada have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Residents of long-term care homes accounted for nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in B.C. as of Jan. 7.

All residents and staff at long-term care facilities in that province have now been offered a COVID-19 vaccine.

Alberta also prioritized staff and residents of long-term care in the first phase of its vaccine rollout, which began in January.