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Dr. Bonnie Henry during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 1, 2021.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s top doctor has apologized to thousands of seniors in long-term care homes across the province whose second dose of COVID-19 vaccine has been delayed – some of whom found out the day before their scheduled appointments this week.

On Monday, the province announced it will extend the interval between the first and second shots to 16 weeks as a way to free up more vaccine and immunize the wider population more quickly. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told reporters at that COVID-19 briefing that people who had already received their first dose would get their second within the previous window of six weeks. On Thursday, Dr. Henry apologized for the miscommunication, noting the seniors will have to wait longer, but adding that the best science shows they should get about the same amount of protection from just one dose.

“I know that came as a shock for many people, and I regret our communications are not able to keep up as fast as the decision-making,” Dr. Henry said. “But please know that this was made in the spirit of understanding data and maximizing the benefit to all of us.

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“That dose you didn’t receive on Tuesday or Wednesday or today is now being administered to a community member, to another member of our family, our community here in B.C., to protect them. And ultimately it will bring us all closer to getting to our postpandemic world.”

The Health Ministry could not immediately provide current statistics on Thursday afternoon for overall vaccination in the sector, but pointed to an announcement last week showing that 28,430 nursing home residents had received their first dose and 12,197 had got their booster. The data also showed just over half the staff in these facilities (20,434 people) had received their second doses.

Isobel Mackenzie, the provincial seniors’ advocate, a watchdog who reports to the Health Ministry, said outbreaks at nursing homes are down about 80 per cent from the peak during the second wave of the pandemic, with the province reporting six active outbreaks on Thursday.

“What that is telling us is that the vaccine is hugely effective,” Ms. Mackenzie said.

But loneliness and isolation, she said, continue to be massive problems for those in long-term care. She said families are eagerly waiting for Dr. Henry to fulfill her promise to revise visitation guidelines by the end of this month to allow more contact.

A year ago, after the death toll began mounting at several nursing homes – some of which were understaffed – public-health officials and care-home providers banned all visitors in an attempt to keep residents safe. Last spring, the province allowed each resident to have one essential caregiver.

Roger Wong, an expert on seniors’ well-being who teaches clinical geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia, said the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines appear to offer a good level of protection after just one dose, but it is not clear what extending the dosing interval will mean for seniors.

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Still, he said, more of the general population getting a first dose sooner could be a silver lining for seniors, as it will help determine “how we can support, in a safe way, a return of family caregivers to long-term care homes.”

Shirley Bond, interim leader of the Opposition B.C. Liberals, slammed the government for its dosing decision in the Legislature on Thursday morning, saying a constituent told her that her mother’s second dose was cancelled the day it was to be delivered.

“This is what she said it means: ‘Another two months of being locked in their facility with no interaction with the outside world,’” Ms. Bond said. “Can the Premier explain why that scheduled second dose was cancelled on the very day it was to have been given, causing additional anxiety and stress for that resident, for the staff and for their family?”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the decision to delay these boosters for everyone – even seniors in nursing homes – is backed by the best available evidence and will provide more protection to more people across B.C. He added that 97 per cent of staff in these facilities and 92 per cent of residents have received their first dose.

Premiers say federal COVID-19 vaccine procurement delays have left them no choice but to stretch out the time between doses. British Columbia announced Monday it would allow up to four months between doses. Several other provinces followed suit after a national panel of vaccine experts recommended such an extension would be appropriate if supplies are limited. The Canadian Press

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