Calls for mandatory vaccines for Manitoba personal care home staff as Omicron threat looms

With the threat of Omicron, one family and experts say Manitoba needs to do more to protect seniors living in long term care homes.

'I'd rather lose an unvaccinated nurse or 2 than actually see hundreds of people end up dead,' expert says

To date, 1,643 direct-care health workers in Manitoba remain unvaccinated and are submitting to routine testing and 143 staff are on unpaid leave. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Alvin Cadonic says more should be done to protect residents living in Manitoba personal care homes from the looming threat of Omicron.

"It does seem kind of ridiculous that to go to a Bomber game you have to be vaccinated, but to work in a personal care home you don't," Cadonic said.

Cadonic's aunt and uncle live at the Maples Long Term Care Home — the site of Manitoba's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak last year, where 56 residents died.

He worries about the virus making its way in again, so he is not visiting his family in person.

"Zoom calls, that's all we can do," Cadonic said. "We don't want to risk entering the home because we don't want to lose them."

Cadonic would like to see Manitoba mandate vaccinations for all staff working in personal care homes.

Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network in Toronto, agrees.

"If someone wants to have the privilege of working with a frail, older person, we need to make sure that they're doing everything they can to protect the people that they're caring for," Sinha said.

His one piece of advice: bring in a vaccine mandate for all staff and ensure everyone gets a third dose as quickly as possible.

5% of direct-care workers still not vaccinated

In Manitoba, a provincial mandate that came in effect Oct. 18 meant about 42,000 health-care workers had to be doubly vaccinated by then or submit to testing up to three times a week. Those who refused that accommodation were put on unpaid leave.

Shared Health would not release how many staff in the personal care homes sector remain unvaccinated.

However, as of Dec. 6, 95 per cent of direct-care health workers were double-vaccinated in the province, 1,643 are unvaccinated but have opted for regular testing and 143 staff are on unpaid leave, according to Shared Health.

Sinha says that still means five per cent of direct-care staff are not vaccinated.

"Five per cent might seem like a small and manageable number, but that really could be a significant difference between life or death for many residents," he said, adding once the virus gets into a care home "it can spread like wildfire."

And while many residents have had third doses, Sinha notes some will not have achieved immunity and for others, their immunity will wane.

Premier defends current rules

This week, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson defended Manitoba's current vaccination policy.

"What I don't want to do is create a significantly more shortage of nurses in Manitoba," Stefanson said Tuesday. "So we need to ensure that they have the testing to look after the patients."

When asked again Wednesday, after the province released modelling suggesting Manitoba could see 1,000 cases a day in the new year, the premier maintained her position.

"To the extent that for whatever reason they're not going to be [vaccinated], which is a very, very small percentage of them, that we require them to be tested. And so again, that is a mandate in and of itself and we continue to stand by that."

Testing not enough, expert says

Sinha says data from other jurisdictions show vaccine mandates are effective and relying on testing is not enough.

"Testing only three times a week isn't even adequate given this variant," he said. "It's as if you're building a castle, but leaving the drawbridge down — you're still leaving too many opportunities for the virus to get in."

Ontario reversed its vaccine-or-test policy for long-term care workers in October to deal with the threat of the Delta variant.

Since then, at least 98 per cent of staff in long-term care homes have rolled up their sleeves for a vaccine, after the Ford government mandated all workers in the sector had to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 13 or lose their jobs.

In Nova Scotia, 99 per cent of workers in long-term care homes were vaccinated following its mandate.

Sinha says now is the time to do everything possible to protect residents in long-term care.

"I'd rather lose an unvaccinated nurse or two than actually see hundreds of people end up dead," he said.

Rapid testing, third doses also key, expert says

Michelle Porter, the director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba, agrees mandating vaccines in personal care homes is a critical step in protecting residents.

"The zoo felt it was important that they have all of their staff vaccinated so that they can protect the animals that they're caring for," Porter said. "I really cannot understand why, knowing how much risk these residents are at ... why are we not willing to give them as much protection as possible?"

Porter said ensuring easy access to third doses for staff and expanding rapid testing to all staff, volunteers and visitors should be another consideration right now. 

Sinha hopes the province reexamines its vaccine policy in personal care homes as Omicron, with a doubling time of three days, is slated to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks.

"We are really scared about what might actually transpire over the coming weeks and months," he said. "If you miss a chance to do the right thing, this is a chance that will cost lives."

Meanwhile, Cadonic and other families are still waiting for Manitoba to implement all of the recommendations from an independent report into the handling of the devastating outbreak at Maples Long Term Care Home.