Two residents of a long-term care home in Niagara Falls have died following an outbreak at the facility.
Niagara Region Public Health declared an outbreak at the Ray & Helen Lawson Eventide Home on Sept. 1, and according to the Salvation Army, which operates the home, a total of 12 residents and five staff members had tested positive as of Friday morning.
The outbreak is the latest one leading to advocates and legislators amplifying their calls for the government to mandate vaccinations in long-term care homes. A few days ago, it was reported that two residents died at the Hillsdale Estates long-term care home in Oshawa following an outbreak.
"We do have two residents that have died since the outbreak, but what we know is that they passed away unfortunately, we don't know whether it's due to COVID-19 ," Glenn van Gulik, divisional secretary for public relations of the Salvation Army's Ontario division, told QP Briefing. The two people who passed away are among the 12 confirmed resident cases of COVID-19.
Van Gulik said earlier this week that he did not know how the outbreak started, noting that Niagara Region Public Health is overseeing contact tracing.
When asked, the health unit said it "won’t comment on the circumstances of an individual case such as the first case of this outbreak" due to privacy reasons. But Kerri Stoakley, public health communications consultant for the health unit, noted that outbreaks in long-term care homes typically start with a staff member or visitor bringing the virus into the home.
"We are sure that was the case here as well," Stoakley wrote. "Unvaccinated persons are much more likely to have brought infection into a home give(n) they are the vast majority of persons infected in Niagara."
Van Gulik said 97 per cent of residents at the non-profit home are fully vaccinated and 76 per cent of staff have received two doses, with another six per cent of staff who are partially vaccinated. He said he doesn't know whether the two residents who died were vaccinated.
"For any of the other staff, we are continuing to encourage strongly that they get vaccinated as soon as possible, and they are part of the education process." he said.
The province required long-term care homes to implement vaccination policies by July 1 where at a minimum, staff members would need to show proof of vaccination, provide documentation for a medical exemption or participate in an education session about the COVID-19 vaccine. Unvaccinated staff would also need to submit to regular testing. But advocates have said this isn't enough.
Several large nursing home operators announced last month that they would go further, requiring that staff be vaccinated or face an unpaid leave of absence.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the key is having everyone who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine get their shots and that the province needs to do more to tackle barriers to vaccination.
Horwath reiterated her party's call for the provincial government to mandate vaccines for health-care workers and those in the education sector, as opposed to allowing unvaccinated staff to be tested on a regular basis.
"As this very instance ... identifies, these are where our most vulnerable people are," she said, referring to the outbreak at R.H. Lawson Eventide. "That's terrible news and my heart goes out to the families that lost a loved one, my heart goes out to the people at the long term-care home that are grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 here in the fourth wave."
While some homes have enacted vaccine mandates, Vivian Stamatopoulos, a long-term care advocate and professor at Ontario Tech University, said this needs to come from the province. She noted there is some concern among non-profit operators that don't have the same resources as large private companies to fight potential lawsuits.
"The fact that we are seeing provincial mandates for non-essential services going to take effect soon enough and not for our most vulnerable congregate care living situation is just mind blowing," Stamatopoulos said, referring to the vaccine passport program the province will be launching on Sept. 22.
She said a provincial vaccine policy for the long-term care sector should mirror that of the University Health Network, which announced a few weeks ago that it would initially place unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave for two weeks before terminating their employment if they still refuse to get inoculated.
"If you are working in these vulnerable congregate care health-care facilities ... if you opt for conspiratorial thinking and/or not understanding the efficacy around vaccines more holistically, then I don't think you belong in this sector," she said.
Stamatopoulos said she's written to Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips about her concern over the "escalating trend" of outbreaks in long-term care homes during the fourth wave.
"I'm worried now that with schools reopening and the fact that many of these staffers have school-aged children, that it's just going to find its way back into these homes like it did in the second wave," she said, also noting low staff vaccination rates in some facilities and the fact that not all residents have received booster shots yet.
"We still have homes with with far too low vaccination rates among their staff and what we are seeing so far from reports on the ground ... is that these are primarily ... unvaccinated staff-driven outbreaks and nothing is being done to properly deal with this," she said.
Stamatopoulos expressed frustration at the rate of fully vaccinated staff at R.H. Lawson Eventide.
"This is ridiculous and this is the problem — the residents did their part and they did what they needed to do to be protected in their homes," she said. "And what's really frustrating is (76 per cent) is nowhere enough, we need to be at 95 per cent vaccination at a minimum to deal with Delta."
Asked why the government wasn't mandating vaccines in nursing homes, Ministry of Long-Term Care spokesperson Mark Nesbitt said the government is "proud of our efforts to improve vaccine uptake for long-term care home staff."
He said an estimated 90 per cent of staff have had at least one dose.
"We’ll continue to work with homes and our partners to get that number as high as possible. The ministry is always looking for ways to help enhance vaccination uptake across the sector," Nesbitt said. "That said, we believe that long-term care home operators are in the best position to strengthen their own policies, and ensure they have measures in place to get as many needles into arms as possible."
Stamatopoulos added that not informing the public of the vaccination status of those who have died in an outbreak is another concern because it would help in understanding how COVID-19 and variants are affecting these homes and whether or not these were breakthrough cases.
"We're not saying provide the names of the people, but let us know so we can get a better handle on the situation," she said.
Meanwhile, the province announced on Aug. 17 that it would start offering third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable populations including long-term care residents, but that the timing of this would vary between public health units. The booster shot for this population could be given a minimum of five months after their second doses, the government said at the time.
Asked whether third doses had been rolled out at R.H. Lawson Eventide, the health unit said not yet.
"Niagara is currently working its way though delivering third doses to the 33 long-term care, as well as the 14 high-risk retirement homes homes in our region," Stoakley said. "Each home is advising when they can have consents lined up and are ready to vaccinate in their facility. Unfortunately, R.H. Lawson Eventide is not one of the homes that we have already been able to visit to deliver third doses."
Van Gulik said he's unsure of the timing of this, but they're looking forward to having the health unit in to provide booster shots.
"Anytime Niagara Public Health comes to us and says, 'We'd like to start doses or we'd like to offer x,' we're going to avail ourselves of that," he said.
The ministry wouldn't say how many homes have received booster shots, just saying that homes and public health units are working together to ensure eligible residents receive third doses.
During the outbreak, Niagara Region Public Health said it is supporting R.H. Lawson Eventide by advising on outbreak control measures, isolation and testing, and evaluating the risk of spread.
Van Gulik said that after consulting with public health and the ministry, the home has "restricted visitor and essential caregiver access to the home solely to limit the number of people coming in and out while we manage the outbreak."
But he added that staff are evaluating this on a case-by-case basis so that if there are residents needing urgent care, "we're managing that."
"All areas of the home are currently in isolation," the ministry noted, confirming that an inspector is on site.