Optimism, relief as Alberta's long-term care centres see significant drop in COVID-19 cases

Alberta has seen a drop of 92 per cent in active COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities ever since hitting a peak of 776 cases in late December.

Active cases of COVID-19 in long-term care have dropped 92 per cent since December

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is pictured in Calgary on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. The vaccine rollout has helped facilitate a 92 per cent drop in active cases in long-term care facilities. (Alberta Health Services)

After months of worrying about the risk of COVID-19 in long-term care homes, Nicole Bugeaud is finally feeling some relief.

Bugeaud's sister, Dominique, has Down Syndrome and lives at Centre de Santé Saint-Thomas, a supportive living facility in Edmonton.

The past year has been a rollercoaster for Nicole and her family, but now that her sister has received both doses of the vaccine, she says things are getting better.

"It was a difficult year in the sense that things were evolving very quickly, cases were erupting everywhere, protocols were put in place limiting visitations," Bugeaud said.

"Trying to explain to her that what was going on wasn't easy. But in the last couple of months, things have gone better. Cases have gone down, two-shot vaccinations were completed for all residents and things seem to be calming down a lot more."

Nicole Bugeaud is feeling a sense of relief now that her sister, Dominique, who lives in Centre de Santé Saint-Thomas, has received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. (Francois Joly/CBC News)

This relief is being felt by many long-term care residents, their families and staff, as Alberta is reporting a steep decline in active COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities.

According to the province, active cases have fallen 92 per cent in long-term care since hitting a peak of 776 on Dec. 27. The decline coincides with the province's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, all long-term care and designated supportive living facility residents have been vaccinated.

On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said two of every three deaths linked to COVID-19 in the province came from long-term care or supportive living facilities.

Hinshaw said the decline in cases shows strict public health measures to reduce community spread have worked, and exemplifies the protective effect of the COVID-19 vaccines.

"Every one of us should take pride in this turnaround, as it is the result of not only our immunization campaign, but also of our collective efforts to bring our new case numbers down," Hinshaw said on Monday.

Hinshaw added that the number of active long-term care outbreaks had dropped from 74 on Dec. 20 to five as of Feb. 16.

In designated supportive-living facilities, a peak of 1,300 active cases on Christmas Day has since fallen by 88 per cent.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said it's been remarkable to see the high rates of infection and deaths in long-term care centres decline. She said the decline is affirming as proof of the vaccine's effectiveness.

"I think that everyone can look at this example and say that they're reassured that even in this frail population, the vaccines are safe and effective," Saxinger said. "That's just a great message for everybody to focus on."

Now that there's more protection for long-term care residents, Saxinger said she wouldn't be surprised to see some restrictions eased to make it easier for visitors to see loved ones, while still protecting people who haven't been vaccinated.

But she added she hopes current restrictions hold steady while until the province better understands the risk of COVID-19 variants. If variant transmission takes off, it could necessitate much longer and more severe restrictions, Saxinger said.

Michael Dempsey, a vice-president with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said there's a lot of relief among long-term care staff that case numbers have dropped. He said he's heard many workers worked double-shifts and as long as 16-hour days.

"There was a lot of angst and anxiety as well as fatigue, because of course if a member has to book off sick then they're off for a couple of weeks," Dempsey said.

He added that there's still some residual anger among AUPE members about the province not implementing stricter health measures sooner as the province entered its second wave of COVID-19.

Bugeaud said it's been difficult for her sister at Saint-Thomas dealing with isolation in the past year. Her sister often doesn't recognize family members when they're wearing masks and video calls are difficult because she isn't very verbal, Bugeaud said.

She hopes that with the recent decline, her family will be able to visit her sister more often.

"COVID has made us all think of what we want in our lives, how we want to live our lives," Bugeaud said.

"My brothers and sisters are most or all retired. Certainly, they have the time to come and spend with her, but the limitations were holding them back."

With files from Francois Joly