City offers vaccines to Rebecca Towers residents, but tenants say it's not enough for all adults

Public heath is offering three half-hour slots at the FirstOntario Centre for residents of Rebecca Towers to get vaccinated, but tenants of the building say the 150 appointments that have been set aside aren't enough for all the adults living there.

'One hundred and fifty people for vaccination is obviously not enough for 164 units'

Public health is offering three slots at the FirstOntario vaccination site for residents of Rebecca Towers amid an outbreak that's been linked to 109 cases since mid-March. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Public heath is offering three half-hour slots at the FirstOntario Centre for residents of Rebecca Towers to get vaccinated, but tenants of the building say the 150 appointments that have been set aside aren't enough for all the adults living there.

The shots will be available on a walk-in basis at the mass vaccination site between 7:30 and 8 p.m. from Friday to Sunday and are open to anyone who is 18 and older, according to public health.

Fifty appointments will be offered during each window, said spokesperson Aisling Higgins.

There are 164 units in Rebecca Towers. It's not clear exactly how many adults live in the building, but Arefin Chowdhury said the appointments won't cover everyone.

"One hundred and fifty people for vaccination is obviously not enough for 164 units," he said. "In our point of view it's not enough at all, a half-hour slot."

The offer of appointments follows repeated calls from those living in the highrise for a mobile clinic to be set up there as the number of cases has continued to grow since mid-March, rising to 109 on Wednesday. One person has died.

Chowdhury, who contracted COVID-19 and whose isolation ended only this week, was part of a group of tenants from the building who met with health officials Wednesday morning.

He said they were told more appointments could be made available if necessary, but the residents were left feeling public health had already decided what to do before that meeting began, so there was no room for debate.

"Obviously there's disappointment from our tenants group," he said.

"We are supporting whatever they're trying to do but our demand, I don't think, has been met by the city yet."

A banner calling for help hangs from a balcony at Rebecca Towers on May 7, 2021. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Public health is working with DARTS to set up accessible transportation to bring residents to FirstOntario Centre and "vaccine ambassadors" will be going door-to-door to help people work through any barriers that might keep them from accessing the shots, said Higgins.

Staff will also identify anyone who's homebound or isolating because of a close contact with a case and may need to be vaccinated on-site, she said, but a mobile clinic will not be offering shots to everyone living there.

Johnson says public health found 'areas of deficiency'

Paul Johnson, director of Hamilton's emergency operations centre (EOC), was asked about the situation in the building during Wednesday's council meeting.

"I do know that they've found some areas of deficiency and asked the management company to address those and my understanding is they're being addressed," he said in response to a question from Councillor Jason Farr.

Farr represents Ward 2, which includes Rebecca Towers, and described the situation there as "dire."

Rebecca Towers "needs attention," the councillor said, adding that when it comes to concerns about maintenance "it's not a big secret it's not well-known as a building that is known for wonderful upkeep."

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, previously said the building was "well looked after" from the standpoint of maintenance.

She said investigation showed the virus was spreading throughout the building by residents "caring" for one another and socializing, suggesting people bringing groceries to neighbours or visiting tenants who live alone as examples.

A man stares out at the street below from a Rebecca Towers balcony. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In response to questions from CBC about the deficiencies Johnson referred to, public health said staff are continuing to work with the landlord to make sure infection prevention and control measures are in place.

Those measures include signs about capacity limits in the elevator and laundry room and designated cleaners coming in daily, Higgins said. Health officials also recommended cleaning high-touch areas at least twice a day, providing hand sanitizer in common spaces and adding physical distancing markers in shared areas.

Rebecca Towers was the first in the city where an outbreak was declared, but in the days that followed, two more apartment complexes were added following clusters of cases.

The number of cases at the Village Apartments increased by three to 32 on Wednesday, while the outbreak at Wellington Place remains at 22 cases.

All three buildings are in the L8R postal code, which has not been designated a hot zone with increased access to COVID-19 vaccines.

In Hamilton's five hot spots (L9C, L8W, L8L, L8N L9K) people 18 and older can sign up for shots.

Outside of those areas, people 50 and older can make appointments for a vaccine.

Public health said people living in the Village Apartments and Wellington Place will also be offered vaccine appointments at FirstOntario Centre, though details have not been finalized.

Residents at Rebecca Towers have been calling for an on-site vaccine clinic since the outbreak was officially declared on May 3, sharing fears about exposure to the virus and saying shots would help stop the spread.

WATCH | Rebecca Towers residents want access to shots

'We need vaccines': Rebecca Towers residents speak out

CBC News Hamilton

3 months ago
Members of the Rebecca Towers tenant committee share their concerns following a COVID-19 outbreak in their building. 0:59

The topic came up during the council meeting, with Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson asking why on-site clinics or door-to-door vaccinations are not possible.

Offering shots to people inside apartment buildings is a strategy that has been used in other regions, including Ottawa, to make shots as accessible as possible to some of their most vulnerable residents.

Building offered gym as vaccine clinic for community

Johnson responded that setting up an on-site clinic is a complicated process that includes inspections.

"The work that goes into an actual on-site clinic is more than just arriving with people and needles and the vaccine," he said, adding the city's vaccination strategy is about balancing access and resources that are already "stretched."

"Is it a hard 'it will never be this way?' No, at this point there is not the capacity for public health to set up and deliver these types of clinics," he said.

While smaller clinics have been set up along with the mass vaccination sites, Johnson said they must "serve more than just a building and more than just one population, but serve a community that may surround it."

The CEO of the company the runs the Village Apartments said that's exactly what her organization was hoping to do when it offered its gymnasium as a potential vaccine site back in February, but she never heard back from public health.

That initial offer was made long before the clusters of cases appeared that led to it being declared an outbreak, according to Lori-Anne Gagne, CEO of Victoria Park Community Homes.

COVID-19 outbreaks have been declared at both the Village Apartments and Wellington Place Apartments amid dozens of cases. (Google Maps)

They offered the gym again during a meeting with health officials on Monday.

"This news is a little disappointing because of course we would've opened up our site to the broader community and not just our buildings," she wrote in an email on Wednesday, adding the gym is accessible and has public washrooms.

"I can appreciate that 'resources are stretched thin,'" Gagne wrote. "[But] With some coordination, we could've helped stretch those resources even further.

Now, all we can focus on ... is communicating with and supporting our residents and trying to contain the outbreak so it doesn't spread."

'I'm sure they're absolutely terrified'

Those living in Rebecca Towers have also shared concerns about the virus spreading, with case numbers continuing to rise since the outbreak was declared.

One of the core issues they've raised is the fact that the 17-storey building is currently down to one elevator. The lift is limited to two or three riders at a time as a second elevator undergoes repairs.

Medallion, the property management company that owns the highrise, previously told CBC the work was "necessary," but has not responded to follow-up emails about conditions in the building.

Richardson told reporters earlier this week that public health could not push the landlord to fix the elevator more quickly as that was outside its "purview."

A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared at Rebecca Towers. There are 38 active cases there as of Wednesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Ken Leendertse, director of licensing and bylaw services for the city, confirmed to council on Wednesday that the building meets Hamilton's property standards bylaw, as one lift is still working.

"For the folks living in that building, property standards aside, this is a crisis for them and I'm sure they're absolutely terrified," Ward 15 Coun. Judi Partridge responded.

The councillor asked whether anyone is "lighting a fire" under the property management company to get it fixed.

"To me it's the responsibility of everybody to ensure that these residents get the assistance they need, get the vaccinations they need and that they get the help they need," she said. "I'm not so sure that's happening right now."


Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca


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