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New Brunswick, with one of the slowest COVID-19 vaccination rollouts in the country, is racing to give thousands of nursing home residents their first doses this week.

Long-term care homes have accounted for 17 of the province’s 26 coronavirus deaths, yet many of the residents were waiting for their vaccinations weeks after health care workers had theirs. Of the more than 11,000 people who have been fully vaccinated in the province, fewer than 15 per cent come from this most vulnerable population.

As of Wednesday, New Brunswick had administered more than 26,000 total doses, to about 3.4 per cent of the province’s population. Most of those inoculated have been health care workers – 9,395 have received both doses, while 1,626 long-term care residents have been fully vaccinated.

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After growing criticism, the province adjusted its approach. This week and next, it plans on delivering doses to 8,800 residents and staff at 321 long-term care residences – and the provincial government said all licensed nursing homes should have received their first doses by mid-March.

In Nova Scotia, only 955 long-term care residents had been fully vaccinated by Feb. 23 – compared to more than 10,000 health care workers, according to government data. Yet nursing home residents have accounted for 57 of 65 deaths.

Some families are angry the provinces appear to have prioritized public-sector employees in the early stages of vaccination.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Greg Losely, whose wife, Carol, lives in the Kiwanis Nursing Home in Sussex, N.B. “They keep saying the nursing home people are the most vulnerable. Well, if that’s the case, shouldn’t they get the vaccines first?”

His wife, 71, has multiple sclerosis and requires full-time care. She’s immuno-compromised, and has left the 70-bed facility only twice since last March, to visit the dentist. It’s been an anxious time with only limited opportunities to visit, Mr. Losely said.

“My wife is begging me to take her home,” he said. “She doesn’t feel safe in there.”

The Atlantic provinces have taken different approaches. Prince Edward Island, which has one of the highest rates of vaccination among provinces, has used about 90 per cent of its available doses.

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Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, which have larger stockpiles, have been among the slowest to vaccinate – at around 3 per cent and 3.2 per cent of their populations, respectively. That’s according to public data comparing vaccines delivered from Ottawa with provincially reported doses administered.

Nova Scotia focused on vaccinations in long-term care homes a few weeks ago, and this week is targeting people who are 80 and older in the general population. The provincial government says 2,205 residents of nursing homes have received their first dose.

Rates of COVID-19 infection have been lower in the Atlantic region as a whole than in the rest of Canada, despite recent outbreaks.

In some cases, the type of vaccines available have determined who goes first. Nova Scotia has used the Moderna vaccine in its long-term care homes, and the Pfizer-BioNTech product at off-site vaccination clinics. Nursing homes do not have the necessary ultracold storage equipment for the Pfizer shot, so staff in some facilities got their first shots off-site while residents waited for Moderna. As well, vaccine supplies were delayed in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after shipments were rerouted to Canada’s North.

The New Brunswick government announced last week it would delay administering the second dose for those considered at a lower risk. It pledged to vaccinate all long-term care residents, front-line health care staff, First Nations adults and people 85 years and over by the end of March.

“We must broaden the scope of our vaccine campaign to ensure we do protect those most vulnerable,” said Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.

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Thousands of older New Brunswickers who don’t live in long-term care are still waiting to find out how and when they can apply to be vaccinated.

“We asked our doctor when we could expect the vaccine,” said Alphonse Dionne, 78, president of the New Brunswick Senior Citizens Federation. “She told us she doesn’t know any more than we do.

“That part is very disappointing. But I realize we’re at the mercy of those vaccine shipments, and we’re not producing any in Canada.”

New Brunswick says it expects to be able to provide a second dose to people over 70 starting in June. That’s a delay from earlier timelines, in part because of a new plan to begin vaccinating students aged 16 to 24 that month, in response to a recent outbreak in Newfoundland that began with high-school students.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Russell confirm three cases of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 in the province. The Canadian Press

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