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A nurse prepares to give the first COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed in Edmonton on Dec. 15, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Thousands of Albertans living in privately funded congregate care facilities have not received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and are not, as a group, given priority in the government’s inoculation plan.

Alberta earlier this week said residents and staff at 357 long-term care and designated supportive-living operations, which are categories subsidized by taxpayers, had received the first of two shots to guard against the coronavirus. However, this excludes facilities that may offer care for seniors in similar settings – such as retirement homes and some assisted-living facilities – but are funded privately.

All people older than 75 in Alberta are eligible for the vaccine in the next phase of the province’s plan. However, seniors in privately funded congregate facilities have not been designated to be the first in that group to be vaccinated, which experts argue is a mistake because people living in group settings are at greater danger. Alberta stopped booking appointments for the first dose of the vaccine on Monday, after Pfizer slowed shipments of the shot to Canada.

People 65 and older living in congregate settings in Canada are 74 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their peers living in the community, according to research that Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health in Toronto, conducted with colleagues at the National Institute on Ageing.

“COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate on whether it is publicly funded or private, for-profit,” he said.

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Alberta deserves kudos for quickly vaccinating those in the long-term care and designated supportive living categories, Dr. Sinha said, but is slipping up by not prioritizing others living in congregate facilities.

“If there’s an opportunity to protect more vulnerable people, let’s not waste that opportunity.”

Alberta has about 27,000 spaces in long-term care and designated supportive living. People in these beds were eligible for the first round of vaccinations unless they were too ill to participate. About 66 per cent of the people who have died of COVID-19 in Alberta were categorized as long-term care or designated supportive living residents, according to the province. Officials argue that is why these people were first on the list.

But it also has about 19,000 spaces for residents in fully private facilities like retirement homes and supportive-living operations, according to Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan. People in this category would not be eligible for the vaccine until the next phase, which is for people older than 75, regardless of location. However, people in privately funded beds in facilities that share a building with long-term care or designated supportive living would have received their first dose already, Mr. McMillan said.

Steve Buick, press secretary for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said the province is aware of more than 10,000 people who live in settings such as seniors’ lodges that are privately funded and, as a result, were not in the first round of the vaccinations. Mr. Buick said the next phase, focusing on people older than 75, would also target seniors living in group settings.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said she recognizes that seniors who live in facilities that did not qualify for the first round of shots are at risk, but not to the same degree as those in the 357 facilities that received vaccine.

“We have not seen that same heavy death toll,” she told reporters on Thursday.

Irene Martin-Lindsay, executive director of the Alberta Seniors and Community Housing Association, a lobby group for the care industry, noted that the province imposed restrictions at licensed supportive living and long-term care operations last spring in an effort to slow the infection among the vulnerable. These included private operations. Ms. Martin-Lindsay called it confounding that those facilities do not have a reserved spot in the vaccine queue based on the logic behind the restrictions.

“They left out the people they’ve designated as vulnerable this whole time,” she said.

Robyn Tse’s 96-year-old grandmother lives in Canterbury Foundation’s home in Edmonton and has yet to receive the vaccine. “In my mind, where a congregate care living facility is receiving funding from doesn’t really change the risk to the seniors living there,” she said.

With a report from James Keller

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