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A COVID-19 vaccine is prepared to be administered in Toronto, on Dec. 14, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Vaccinations in Ontario long-term care homes have prevented hundreds of COVID-19 deaths and thousands of infections, scientists advising the province said in a report released Monday.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said that eight weeks after vaccinations began in December, infections were reduced by 89 per cent among long-term care residents and by 79 per cent among workers.

Deaths from COVID-19 among long-term care residents were reduced by 96 per cent over the same period.

“These data highlight the importance of accelerating vaccine rollout to priority populations who are at disproportionately high risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, COVID-19 hospitalization and death,” the report said.

Ontario’s vaccine rollout began in December with long-term care workers after Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for use in the country. Nursing home residents started to get vaccinated towards the end of that month.

Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson: Which COVID-19 vaccine will I get in Canada?

Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).

PFIZER-BIONTECH

  • Also known as: Comirnaty
  • Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
  • Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.

MODERNA

  • Also known as: SpikeVax
  • Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
  • Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.

OXFORD-ASTRAZENECA

  • Also known as: Vaxzevria
  • Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
  • Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.

JOHNSON & JOHNSON

  • Also known as: Janssen
  • Approved on: March 5, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
  • Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.

How many vaccine doses do I get?

All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.

Those two groups were prioritized for vaccines given the high rates of deaths and infections in the long-term care sector since the pandemic began.

The report noted that long-term care residents represent less than one per cent of Ontario’s population but have made up more than half of the COVID-19 deaths in the province.

The researchers behind the report estimated that vaccinations prevented more than 2,600 infections, 250 hospitalizations and 615 deaths, most of those among residents, between Dec. 14, 2020, and Feb. 23.

The report noted that 92 per cent of long-term care residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 23, with that number rising to 95 per cent by March 5.

Monday’s report also said strong provincewide public-health measures implemented in December and January had worked along with vaccinations to prevent infections.

“This emphasizes that public-health measures will need to be maintained alongside vaccination, until vaccine-based immunity has been afforded to the entire population,” the report said.

Completing maximum uptake of vaccinations in the homes “will maximize the safety and well-being of Ontario’s LTC residents and staff,” the report said.

Vaccine uptake among long-term care staff was at 68 per cent as of March 5 – lower than the reported vaccination intention rate of 80 per cent among unionized workers, the report noted.

Closing the vaccination gap among workers is “essential,” the report said, and may require communication as well as financial supports such as paid time off, transportation to a vaccination site and sick leave in case people miss work because of side-effects.

Researchers also noted that “a substantial number” of Ontario long-term care residents may have already achieved some immunity to COVID-19 because of previous infection.

That might have increased apparent vaccine effectiveness when compared with the unvaccinated control population living in the community, they said.

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