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Cecile Lasco, one of the first people to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, helps residents prepare for lunch at the Wellesley Central Place, a long-term care facility in Toronto, on Oct. 18.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Tabby Pieters spent many evenings after work earlier this year driving staff at the nursing home she manages to and from a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

Some were individuals hesitant to roll up their sleeves and get inoculated against the coronavirus, said Ms. Pieters, executive director of Wellesley Central Place in downtown Toronto. Many others were newcomers to Canada unaccustomed to navigating the city, especially in the dark at the end of their shifts.

“They only know work to home,” she said. “They felt it was a bit of a stretch for them to get off work and get on the subway to go to a different spot.”

Using her Lexus to carpool employees to a hospital clinic was just one of the ways Ms. Pieters ensured every single employee at Wellesley Central Place got two shots of the vaccine by mid-September – well before policy makers across Canada began talking about rolling out mandatory immunization policies for health care workers. Systems are overstretched, and many provinces are struggling with the prospect of losing tens of thousands of workers who refuse to get the jab.

The Quebec government announced on Wednesday that it will no longer require its health care employees to be vaccinated; that same day, Ontario said it won’t pursue a similar program for hospital workers. British Columbia, meanwhile, has extended its vaccination deadline for workers in long-term care and assisted living facilities by 35 days to mid-November.

All staff working in Ontario’s 626 nursing homes, however, must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. The province unveiled the policy on Oct. 1, after a surge of outbreaks linked to unvaccinated workers in nursing homes across Canada.

Seven weeks ago, Wellesley Central Place, which had a COVID-19 outbreak early in the pandemic, reached a 100 per cent vaccination rate.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The provincial government released a snapshot of vaccination rates in nursing homes the same day, showing wide variation across the sector. At 13 facilities, only 51 per cent to 67 per cent of staff had both shots as of August, a Globe and Mail tally of the figures shows. Wellesley Central Place was one of just seven homes with vaccination rates of 99 per cent.

The Rekai Centres, the non-profit charitable organization that owns the home, and the University Health Network (UHN) began collaborating during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic; this proved instrumental in getting all 143 workers – from registered nurses and personal support workers to cleaning and administration staff – in the 150-bed home vaccinated. Together, the two groups helped reluctant staff overcome their misgivings, which ranged from a deep suspicion of government, to fears about short- and long-term side effects of the shot.

UHN executives were familiar faces around the home: Many of them, including chief executive officer Kevin Smith, volunteered to work there during an outbreak of COVID-19 in April, 2020, when it had a severe staffing shortage.

Sue Graham-Nutter, chief executive officer of the Rekai Centres, recalled receiving a phone call from Dr. Smith at 10:30 p.m. on April 17, 2020; I hear you need help, he said.

Daneille Herrington (purple t-shirt, far side) a Life Enrichment Aide, leads residents in exercises.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Those were scary days, Ms. Graham-Nutter said. After the first resident became sick with COVID-19 on April 4, the home could not test other residents and staff because it had only seven swabs, she explained. Even the resident cat, Clover, came under suspicion for spreading the virus.

Exhausted staff at the home worked back-to-back shifts, filling in for colleagues who either had symptoms of the virus or were too frightened to show up, Ms. Graham-Nutter said. The home converted its hair salon into a temporary place for staff to take a shower and turned the chapel into a nap room with five beds.

After Dr. Smith sent an e-mail to hospital staff asking for volunteers, 70 physicians, nurses, support staff and executives worked at the home over several weeks. Dr. Smith did three shifts, checking up on residents and delivering food to their rooms while the home was in lockdown.

Deploying staff to the home rather than transferring residents to the hospital was a mutually beneficial arrangement because it freed up acute-care beds for other patients, according to Dr. Smith.

This was not the hospital saving long-term care, he said. “We saved each other.”

Ms. Graham-Nutter in the ‘greenhouse’ at the Wellesley Central Place.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For both UHN and Wellesley Central Place, the pandemic broke down silos in the health care system, helping to build trust between the two institutions.

Dr. Smith called Ms. Graham-Nutter again last December, she recalled, saying that because of their history working together he would like Wellesley Central Place to be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccines that were just arriving in Canada.

Five staff members who worked during the outbreak at the home rolled up their sleeves for the shot, then acted as ambassadors during the vaccine campaign, reassuring colleagues that they had no negative side effects.

“I told them, we don’t have all the knowledge at this point,” Ms. Graham-Nutter said. “The response was, anything to protect my residents.”

By the end of March, a little more than 80 per cent of staff at the home was fully vaccinated. That was the easy part.

Ms. Pieters spent the next several weeks booking appointments for the more hesitant staff and driving them to a clinic at UHN. She even arranged for an employee who is terrified of needles to receive the shot while lying down. Her days moonlighting as a chauffeur ended in September.

On a recent Monday morning, the home was thrumming with activity. A recreational therapist was guiding a group of residents through stretching exercises as kitchen staff set up the dining room for lunch.

Life has returned to normal at Wellesley Central Place, even as the pandemic lingers.

The home sent out invitations to families of residents this week, asking them to a traditional turkey dinner for the holidays in December.

“We are pretty proud with not how it started but how it appears to be ending,” Ms. Graham-Nutter said.

The Wellesley Central Place.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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