Long-term care homes in Ontario where the majority of residents get three or four doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have escaped mass deaths during the Omicron wave despite infection levels similar to those seen in early 2020, according to new figures from the province.
New data from the county shows that 6,572 residents contracted the virus between December 15, 2021 and January 29, 2022 – more than 601 confirmed infections during the first wave that ended in August 2020. But during the last mentioned time period (Dec. 15, 2021 to January 29, 2022) COVID-19-related deaths have been reported for 251 people, compared to 1,940 people during the first wave.
Also unlike the first wave, the deaths represented a fraction of the total COVID-19 deaths in Ontario in December and January. There were more than 1,440 deaths attributed to COVID-19 during those two months in the province, according to CBC tracking, with January being the second deadliest month for the epidemic in Ontario.
The county provided a breakdown of the vaccination status of those who had recently died in long-term care. Of the 220 people who died between January 2 and 29, only one was a resident with four doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Of those, 149 got three doses, 36 were two doses, two were one dose and 32 were not vaccinated, according to figures based on an analysis from Public Health Ontario.
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The Department of Long-Term Care said the county had taken “quick action” to protect against Omicron, noting the push for fourth doses to residents in December, increased testing and administration of third doses to employees.
“The measures taken by the government are working and we will continue to closely monitor the situation in long-term care homes and adjust measures as necessary,” department spokesman Mark Nisbet said in an email.
Ontario made its long-term care residents eligible for the fourth shot of the vaccine at the end of December as Omicron became the dominant virus strain, and four shots appeared to show the strongest protection against disease and death. The county said 36 long-term care residents with four doses have been infected last month.
‘A death that can be prevented’
A leading Canadian expert in geriatrics said the numbers illustrate the value of the fourth doses for those receiving long-term care, but said the province could have done more to administer both the third and fourth injections with greater urgency.
“There were a lot of deaths that could have been prevented and that could have been avoided,” said Dr. Sameer Sinha.
The data shows 33,379 long-term care residents received third shots as of January 31, and 30,867 received a fourth shot.
Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, said the county could have taken more focused steps to ensure booster absorption when third doses become available to long-term care residents in August.
Instead, he said, the sector was “playing a catch-up” when the Omicron threat became apparent in December — at which time public health resources were already strained with campaigns to vaccinate young children and all adults with third doses.
By January, county long-term care homes were reporting record high numbers of COVID-19 outbreaks and outbreaks.
Sinha attributed current levels of vaccination in long-term care to the low mortality rate during the Omicron wave.
But he said the “collateral damage” that had already occurred – including isolation and other issues he said were caused by staff shortages during the outbreak – could have been prevented by rolling out a more powerful vaccine.
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He said that increased access to the workers’ third shots could have prevented some of the difficulties. The county imposed the third pickup for long-term care workers, but pushed the deadline from January to mid-March after the outbreak and employment challenges from Omicron.
The county data also reveals that as of the end of January, a total of 4,810 residents — out of 73,576 in long-term care — had not received any doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sinha said he was “shocked” by the number.
Sinha said efforts to vaccinate long-term care homes must continue, especially as the county is pressing to roll back COVID-19 measures such as proof-of-vaccination rules and disguise in much of the community over the next few months.
“The data shows there is a lot of catching up,” he said.