86 Rebecca Towers residents vaccinated over the weekend, advocate says fear kept some home

Dozens of Rebecca Towers tenants got shots this weekend, but an advocate says fear of exposure kept many from attending designated time slots at FirstOntario Centre. The building has seen 110 cases so far. Fourteen are active today.

'People are just desperately scared to even step out into the hallway:' Emily Power

Arefin Chowdhury was among the Rebecca Towers residents vaccinated at the building over the weekend. (Supplied by Arefin Chowdhury)

Arefin Chowdhury was one of 86 residents of Rebecca Towers who were vaccinated against COVID-19 over the weekend.

His wife and mother were also among the 28 tenants public health says were vaccinated at the building, while another 58 travelled to the FirstOntario Centre for shots.

"We were really happy to have that opportunity," said Chowdhury, who recently recovered from the virus, adding he and his family are feeling safer now.

Still, the number of vaccinations seems "awful low," said councillor Jason Farr during Monday's board of health meeting.

Meanwhile, another figure —the number of cases reported at the building since mid-March — continued to rise, hitting 110. Fourteen of those cases are active, according to public health. One person has died.

Those living at the building were offered shots during three slots from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The Rebecca Towers tenant committee initially shared concerns that those 150 appointments would not be enough, considering it has 164 units and hundreds of residents.

During the meeting, health officials initially said 68 people had received vaccines during the three days, but a spokesperson for public health later confirmed by email that the correct number is 86.

Chowdhury said he and other committee members spread news of the clinics as much as possible before they began, but he thinks the turnout may be because people were still self-isolating.

"I believe there is some hesitancy still, some language barriers," he said. "We are trying to reach out to everyone who got missed."

Emily Power, a tenant advocate who has been working with the committee, told the board of health meeting that she believed something else was keeping people from shots — fear of exposure while attending the mass vaccination site.

"People are just desperately scared to even step out into the hallway," she said during the meeting, explaining people were afraid of possible exposure in shared spaces, including stairwells and the 17-storey building's one, functioning elevator.

"The simple act of going to get vaccinated, might result in them contracting the virus, so people were very, very scared to do that."

Cases have been recorded at the highrise since March, according to health officials, but an outbreak was only declared at the beginning of May.

Much of Monday's board of health meeting was focused on the outbreak at Rebecca Towers and two other buildings. 

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

The Village Apartments has seen 69 cases, of which are 40 active, while Wellington Place has reported 42 with 25 that are active, according to public health.

Public health said it's in the process of finalizing details for designated appointments for residents of both buildings at the FirstOntario Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Michelle Baird, Hamilton's director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease control, said roughly two-thirds of cases across the three outbreaks were acquired among households. Issues of equity, links to other outbreaks at workplaces and the fact that many highrise residents are essential workers who can't stay home are also factors.

"In these buildings we're seeing things such as precarious housing, adverse working conditions, precarious employment overall and just challenging housing situations," said Baird.

She noted that roughly 1,100 door-to-door COVID swabs has been carried out in the buildings, which has "amplified" the numbers there, noting roughly 50 per cent of cases found were asymptomatic.

As for the shots offered to Rebecca Towers residents at home, Baird said staff encountered some issues.

"There were challenges on-site, with people who changed their mind when they were on-site, some people weren't at home," she said, adding quickly that "all of this is not uncommon."

In other instances, some people in the building had already received their first dose and others had a scheduled appointment, said Baird.

Concerns about future building outbreaks

Officials estimate there are roughly 1,100 people living in all three buildings in outbreak and the director said public health is continuing to work on addressing barriers to vaccines at Rebecca Towers and can make more appointments available in the future.

During the meeting, Power gave a presentation outlining what she described as the city's "failure to prepare for building outbreaks."

The building has seen 110 cases of COVID-19 since mid-March. Public health says 14 cases are active there as of Monday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Hamilton has over 250 mid and highrise buildings that are home to more than 85,000 people, said Power.

"I fear that many tenants across the city will get sick and some may die, so it is pressing that we act now."

Confusion around booking appointments, limited time to wait on the phone and language struggles can all be barriers that make it difficult for people to get a shot, said Power.

For those in a building in outbreak, especially those who have medical conditions or who are older, leaving their unit also carries a lot of anxiety, she added.

Power said the city must set up a system to track cases in apartment buildings and provide pop-up clinics, similar to ones offered in Ottawa and Toronto.

That's an approach Chowdhury also supports, saying it would not just help Rebecca Towers, but also the community that surrounds it.

A banner calling for help hangs from a balcony at Rebecca Towers on May 7, 2021. Residents have repeatedly called for on-site vaccinations. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said that in order for the city to vaccinate all of its residents it needs to offer a variety of approaches, but mass vaccination sites, like the one at FirstOntario Centre, are the "most efficient" by far.

Pop-up clinics that could deliver shots on-site takes a long time and vaccines are difficult to move, she said.

"I know the term pop-up makes it sound like we can do it in a day, but it takes two to three weeks to get this set up, if not longer."

Engineer asks about ventilation

Concerns about ventilation and what role it could play in spreading COVID-19 within a building were also raised during the meeting.

Among the delegates was David Elfstrom, a certified energy engineer, who was called in to assess a building in North Bay after a COVID-19 outbreak infected 45 and killed three people.

Elfstrom told CBC he has not inspected Rebecca Towers or the other outbreak sites, but said he was familiar with that era of building and that gaps can exist around plumbing connections, while exhaust vans can allow air to move vertically between units if they aren't working correctly.

He called on the city to send in engineers to look at ventilation issues and what role they may be playing in spreading the virus.

The engineer also said the city should also order that those with COVID-19 in large buildings should be moved to a separate location for isolation.

Richardson responded that the city consulted with other areas that had seen building outbreaks, including North Bay, with Public Health Ontario and Professor Jeffrey Siegel, an engineering expert at the University of Toronto.

Local health officials say their investigation showed socialization between building residents caring for one another, getting groceries for each other and helping out with child care were the major reasons for spread, not ventilation though it can be a source, said Richardson.

"We did advise the building management to review their ventilation systems as well as the issues related to the stacks to make sure those were sealed as well as plumbing," she said, clarifying the city has asked the landlord to report back.

Elfstrom said he believes more than just social interaction is to blame for the way the virus has spread in the buildings.

"Two hundred and twenty one cases in three buildings, with apparently 1,100 people, that's 20 per cent in the past month have become infected out of these three buildings," he said. "That's more than just socialization."


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


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