COVID-19 outbreaks spread through Ottawa's long-term care, retirement homes

With active outbreaks in more than 30 Ottawa long term care and retirement homes, experts are concerned COVID-19 continues to spread in senior living facilities, despite many residents and staff having already received three doses of a vaccine.

Omicron behind cases even though many residents are triple-vaccinated, says expert

A long-term care home employee gets a COVID-19 test last January. The Omicron variant is currently running rampant through Ottawa care and retirement homes, with at least 30 outbreaks — even though many residents and workers are triple-vaccinated. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

More than 30 long-term care and retirement homes in Ottawa are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, even though many staff and residents already have three vaccine doses — sparking concern among experts, advocates and family members.

Chris Haslett's 80-year-old mother has been isolated in her room at her seniors' home for a week, after two staff members tested positive.

While residents were given PCR tests a week ago, many results have yet to come back, so they remain confined to their suites.

"My assumption was that they would be turning these around rather quickly, until last night when we got a letter stating Ottawa Public Health is [delayed by] 10-plus days for PCR tests," Haslett said.

"So my mother has been locked in her room since last Sunday, and there's no hope she's getting out until at least Monday or Tuesday."

The province announced earlier this month it was limiting access to PCR tests to certain groups, including seniors, due to capacity concerns. 

Given that policy, Haslett said it's unacceptable people still have to wait a week and a half for their results. He's sent a letter to both Premier Doug Ford and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson about his mother's treatment and the way the pandemic's been managed.

"I feel that our governments are not prioritizing the elderly," he wrote. "It appears they are expendable and their lives do not matter."

Ottawa Public Health was not available for an interview. 

But Dr. Doug Manuel, an epidemiologist in Ottawa, said the new Omicron variant is particularly concerning to seniors as it can "spread like wildfire" and two vaccine doses don't seem to adequately prevent infection.

Three doses may also not be enough to prevent severe infection in older people, Manuel said, which is why fourth doses will likely be necessary. 

"The concerns are so great, because it's so transmissible, and these people are so vulnerable," he said. 

"This week we saw the number of outbreaks climb very, very quickly in Ontario, so that potential of Omicron coming into facilities is pretty high."

Dr. Doug Manuel, seen here in early 2021, says the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading 'like wildfire,' and that's a big concern for older Ottawans. (Submitted by Dr. Doug Manuel)

Aslan Hart is part of the media team for the province's Ministry of Long-Term Care. She wrote in an email the government anticipated the impact of the Omicron variant on long term care and retirement homes, and "took swift action in mid-December to protect residents and staff."

"Since then, Ontario has taken aggressive measures, becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to make fourth doses available to long-term care residents and mandating third doses for all staff, students, volunteers, caregivers and support workers," she wrote.

She added about 87 per cent of eligible residents, and 54 per cent of staff, have received their third doses of the vaccine.

Staffing shortages and isolation are also concerns

Along with a lack of tests and long wait times for results, long-term care and retirement homes are also facing severe staffing shortages, Manuel said.

That's also a concern for Laura Tamblyn Watts, the CEO of CanAge, a non-partisan seniors' advocacy organization.

"At this point we're seeing that Omicron has just run rampant through all homes," she said.

The lack of staff has serious effects on residents' quality of life, she said, from not being fed or taken to the bathroom regularly to not receiving sufficient medical care.

It's an experience, Tamblyn Watts said, that could take years off the life of an older person.

"The social isolation is absolutely devastating," she said. "I can't underscore that enough."

Haslett said his mother has dementia, so she doesn't fully understand what's happening and why she's been kept in her room.

While her home's management is doing the best they can to keep everyone informed, Haslett said the blame lies with those who've made the rules. 

"We are not doing what's right for them," he said. "I agree that we need to have public health measures to keep them safe, but you can't lock people in their rooms."

With files from All in a Day