Some Alberta seniors in continuing care feel left out in priority phase of vaccine rollout
Families of residents are frustrated with 'ridiculous’ patchwork vaccine rollout
Gaye Oxford's mother lives on the fourth floor at a continuing care facility in Edmonton.
She's made the decision not to tell her 94-year-old mother about the vaccination rollout schedule for Shepherd's Care Vanguard. It excludes her from the first round of shots but includes other seniors in the same facility.
Most of Lou Andrais's fellow residents in the supportive living complex already received their first doses this week.
"To come back and vaccinate a group of people when they're already there, it's ridiculous," said Oxford.
But that is the vaccination plan laid out by the government and Alberta Health Services.
Seniors in private supportive living facilities, and those who live independently — even within a government contracted facility — are being left out of the first round of shots.
It's a plan that's angered families, advocates and private facility operators, who say the exclusion could affect as many as 22,000 seniors in supportive living facilities that are not under contract by the government.
They say it's discriminatory and fails to protect people who are most at risk of a serious outcome from COVID-19.
Shepherd's Care Vanguard is one of the long-term care centres in Alberta that was ravaged by the coronavirus. Seventy residents and staff were infected and 15 residents died.
"When you're vaccinating a building of vulnerable clients, you vaccinate all of them," said Oxford.
The foundation that runs the facility says Andrais is in a private, apartment suite and is not in Vanguard's care. The foundation told the CBC News that it "advocated for our independent residents to be included with the vaccines, however, public health refused," said the email.
'COVID-19 doesn't discriminate'
The situation involving Andrais is not unique and advocates say this issue was flagged to government last month, a week before the initial doses were distributed.
The Alberta Seniors and Community and Housing Association wrote to Health Minister Tyler Shandro and the chief medical officer of health on Dec. 7, but it says it's still waiting for a reply.
"We know that COVID-19 doesn't discriminate based on where you live," said the association in its letter to Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
"By not including all licensed seniors' supportive living in Phase 1 of the vaccinations, you will be letting people in congregate settings know that their neighbour in a higher care setting is more important than them."
The association says a major concern is the congregate settings, for example, dining rooms, where residents mingle.
"We would like clarity, we would like to give our residents and families hope," said executive director Irene Martin-Lindsay.
Martin-Lindsay says an operator of a long-term care home in Edmonton described a situation where a couple living together in the same unit were not vaccinated together at the same time.
"This is really impacting people," she said.
"His wife is upset because she wants to be protected, and the husband wants his wife to be protected."
"It just makes no sense to me, and I haven't been able to figure out the reason for it," she said.
Phase 1-A, which is well underway and is expected to wrap up by the end of the month, includes staff and residents of long-term care and designated supportive living facilities operated under contract with the government.
Dawn Harsch, who is the president and CEO of ExquisiCare, a private, for-profit care home operator in Edmonton, is "angry" the government has skipped her facility, its residents and staff in the first phase.
"If you ask me, the rationale is that there's a clear discrimination from Alberta Health Services against private providers," said Harsch.
"The issue is that they are discriminating against both the seniors who live in private supportive living and long-term care and those staff," she said.
Harsch has written to AHS asking why her facilities have been left out. She says she is not asking for special treatment or to jump the queue.
"I am asking that ExquisiCare clients and staff be appropriately included in Phase 1A and receive their vaccinations in early January when they are entitled to it. If they were in a government funded LTC, they would be getting the vaccine," she wrote in an email to AHS on Jan. 7.
Harsch says 74 doses of the vaccine would cover residents and staff at her company's three sites for the initial shot.
The president and CEO of United Active Living Inc., a private, for-profit company that operates two supportive living facilities in Calgary, says it been contacted by AHS to start planning for a vaccination clinic for its 240 residents. However, no specific dates have been set.
Kim O'Brien says she was concerned when the province announced publicly funded, supportive living facilities under contract with the government would be first in line for the vaccine, but is encouraged AHS has reached out about the upcoming clinic.
"The vaccine is the game changer that all of us have been waiting for — our residents, their families, our staff," said O'Brien.
Doses are prioritized
Priority is being given to people in designated supportive living units and long-term care facilities because "they are the most vulnerable," said an Alberta Health spokesperson.
The government says in "mixed sites" where some residents are in designated supportive living and others are not, the vaccine is being offered to "non-DSL residents."
However, it says there may be instances where the vaccine is administered separately because of concerns over supply and the directive to focus on those most at risk first.
Phase 1-B of the roll out, which includes all seniors in Alberta over the age of 75 "no matter where they live" will begin in February, but the timeline is dependent on the available supply.
Gaye Oxford was asked if there is any consolation knowing that all of the other residents in her mother's facility will be vaccinated and whether that will provide a bit of comfort for her and her mother.
"No, there isn't any consolation," she said.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.