Why are we still seeing COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living facilities despite the reportedly high rate of vacccination?
This was one of many questions the Fraser Health Authority’s board of directors fielded from the public, on a variety of topics ranging from hospital food to COVID-19, delivering babies to opioid overdoses, staff shortages and more, during a virtual board meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin, chief medical health officer, responded to the majority of questions.
“I don’t think there is anything that has caused more distress in this pandemic than what has happened in long-term care,” she said. “It has been very, very difficult to watch and an enormous amount of thought and time and effort has gone into trying to mitigate what has happened there and in particular the vulnerability that our seniors and elderly have to this virus.”
Among reasons why outbreaks in these facilities continue to occur, she said, include the fact that many elderly people were immunized before other people and time has worn on since their last dose, reducing their protection.
“They have gone many months since they had their first and second dose,” she explained, “meaning their immunity has had an opportunity to wane.”
And then there’s the obvious: Your immune system does not work as well as you get older.
“I suspect that for those seniors and elders that the response that they mounted to the vaccine at the beginning was probably not as robust as it was for the rest of us and people who were down into their 30s and 20s, etcetera.”
In response to this, Brodkin said, health officials are rolling out third-dose booster vaccines to those in long-term care “as fast as we quickly can and we expect, hope and expect to be done that process, to have offered everyone their booster dose in long-term care by the end of this month.”
“The booster dose is coming for all of us in the next number of months,” she added.
Brodkin said she suspects regular booster shots “will probably become a reality for us, just as booster shots for flu are something we do every fall.”
“Does high vaccination allow us to get out of this pandemic? Vaccination is our best tool for if not getting out of the pandemic or not ending the pandemic at least getting us close to that as we can,” Brodkin said. “Vaccination was our ticket out of small pox, it was our ticket out of polio, it was our ticket out of measles and it is our ticket out of this.”
As far as getting back to “normal,” she said, “the normal that we evolve into is not going to look like the normal that we had before this virus arrived. Our lives have changed forever, and although we can move to a new normal and a good normal, it will not look the way normal did in January of 2020. This virus will become endemic, meaning that the pandemic will ease, but this virus is going to become part of those viruses that we have that circulate all the time and we will have to continue to do things to protect ourselves against it.”
Jim Sinclair, chairman of the board, noted that 1.8 million people live within the FHA’s jurisdiction and experienced the largest number of COVID-19 cases – roughly 100,000 cases – and the highest number of deaths.
“Our condolences go out to those people who lost loved ones,” he said. “We probably all know somebody who we have lost during this pandemic.”
Roughly 7,000 “additional” staff members were hired to help fight the virus. “None of it would have worked if the people in Fraser Region had not stepped up and had offered to be vaccinated,” Sinclair said. “Vaccines were no good unless they were in people’s arms, and we have one of the highest rates of vaccinations in the province.”
Sinclair said a “staggering” 2.9 million vaccinations have been given, and roughly 84 per cent of the population has had two doses.
“We still have challenges, the Delta variant is a very aggressive variant,” he noted.