Ontario could prevent hundreds of deaths if all LTC residents vaccinated by month's end: report

New projections by the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table suggest if Ontario accelerated its immunization rollout so all of its long-term care home residents were immunized by the end of January, as many as 580 deaths could be avoided by the end of March.

Decision not to immunize all LTC residents first 'a breathtaking failure,' study author says

According to a report released by the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, administering the first dose of the vaccine to all LTC residents by Jan. 31 could save as many as 580 lives under a best-case scenario. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

New projections by the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table suggest if Ontario were to accelerate its immunization rollout and vaccinate all long-term care home residents by the end of January, as many as 580 lives could be saved.

The report, conducted by Science Table and released on Thursday, outlines the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths that could be averted if the government gets needles into the arms of all residents by various target dates.

According to the report, administering the first dose of the vaccine to all long-term care patients by the end of January would prevent a projected 600 COVID-19 cases by March. 31, in comparison to the province's current plan to vaccinate all LTC residents by Feb. 15.

Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and one of the authors of the report, is critical of the province for failing to immunize every long-term care home resident in Ontario by now.

"I consider this honestly to be a breathtaking failure," said Stall. 

"We're approaching five weeks. We have vaccinated about 55,000 long-term care workers, 15,000 retirement home workers and about 15,000 retirement home residents," he said.

"But the number one priority all along ought to have been vaccinating long-term care residents."

According to the report, had the province provided the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to all Ontario LTC residents by Jan. 21, around 530 deaths would be prevented, with the worst-case scenario at 120 deaths and the best case at 900. 

If it provided the first dose to all residents by Jan. 31, around 340 deaths linked to COVID-19 would have been avoidable with the worst case at 100 and the best case at 580.

Under the province's current plan, if it administers the first dose to all residents by Feb. 15, the number of deaths prevented is projected to be 225, with the worst case at 100 and best at 340. 

Without vaccination, the report projected a total of 12,200 COVID-19 cases among LTC residents between Jan. 13, and March 31.

Critics of the Ford government's approach have argued the first 72,000 of the 240,000 vaccine doses delivered thus far should have solely gone into the arms of LTC residents as quickly as possible, as they have the highest likelihood of mortality in comparison to others.

As of Thursday, the province's total COVID-19 death toll has reached 3,256 residents and 10 staff. There are currently 251 homes dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, calles the Ford government approach to long-term care immunizations a 'breathtaking failure.' (CBC)

Stall told CBC News that the approach Ontario has taken in vaccine distribution will likely cost more lives in the long run, given the province's closures during December and its slow start.

The province began administering COVID-19 vaccines on Dec. 14, and identified early on its approximately 70,000 LTC home residents as a priority group to receive the initial doses.

"If vaccine supply is limited, the early provision of first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to LTC home residents is likely to be more beneficial than the on-schedule provision of second doses to health-care workers outside of LTC homes," the report reads.

The province had enough doses to vaccinate all LTC residents, Stall said, but instead health-care workers outside of LTC homes got their shots before some residents. Now that there is a shortage of vaccines, residents are left vulnerable, he said.

"They actually put the needles in the wrong arms," Stall said.

"They put the needles in the arms of people who are much less likely to die and now they've hit the situation where they have an unexpected supply shortage for the next couple of weeks.

"The fact that we are now delaying until Feb. 15 and possibly later, as indicated during yesterday's press conference, to vaccinate the remaining long term care residents — it just defies logic," Stall added.

As of Thursday, 251 long-term care homes in Ontario are grappling with outbreaks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Jennifer Penney's 81-year-old mother died of COVID-19 on Boxing Day, but Penney says had her mother received the shot before that date— she could've lived.

"[My] mother wasn't in the best of health but I don't believe she would have passed if she hadn't contracted COVID-19. She would have been here longer," Penney said.

Penney cared for her mother for several years before she was placed in a long-term care home in 2019, she said.

"I look back and think if I'd just been able to for a couple more months hold back ... she would still be here."

The provincial government said in a statement to CBC Toronto Thursday that recent changes to vaccine transporting conditions has allowed them to immunize more long-term care residents than it initially planned.

Jennifer Penney's 81-year-old mother, Yvette Brauch, died of COVID-19 on Boxing Day. (Submitted by: Jennifer Penney)

"Recently, the manufacturer has advised that the Pfizer vaccine can be transported under specific conditions. After a successful pilot in the Ottawa area, the government has expanded the transport of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to other long-term care homes across the province for the immunization of staff, residents and essential caregivers," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said.

"The province continues to determine the impact the delay in shipments from the federal government will have on the province's vaccine rollout," the statement reads.

"We continue to vaccinate our most vulnerable and remain committed to prioritizing long-term care and high-risk retirement home residents based on availability of supply provided by the federal government."

Ontario will have "baseline capacity to vaccinate nearly 40,000 people a day in the coming weeks, and we have the ability to triple or quadruple this capacity with notice," the spokesperson said.

With files from Angelina King, David Common and Michelle Song