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Betty Tanney, a resident at Augustine House, an assisted living care home in Ladner B.C. in December, 2020.Courtesy of family

On Christmas Day, Maureen Mooney will be permitted 15 minutes to see her mother, Betty Tanney, who is 89. The two will be separated by plexiglass as part of the COVID-19 safety protocols at the assisted living facility where her mom lives. No hugging, no kissing.

“My mom and I are huggers. I miss that,” Ms. Mooney said. But Mrs. Tanney and her family now see an end in sight to the pandemic precautions that have kept them apart since March.

Isolation has been a significant byproduct of the safety measures introduced last March by the B.C. government to protect residents in long-term care and assisted living facilities. Visits and out-trips have been severely curtailed, leaving seniors lonely and anxious, largely cut off from their loved ones.

Mrs. Tanney moved into Augustine House in Ladner two years ago. She had picked out the location years earlier, because she could walk to the chapel next door every morning. “It was the cornerstone of her day,” explains her daughter. “She is definitely missing mass – almost as much as she misses having her hair done,” she said with a laugh.

British Columbia will begin distributing the first COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, and seniors in care homes are the first priority because they are at the highest risk. While Quebec has already started giving residents in long-term care the vaccine, B.C. will treat care workers first.

B.C. has not developed a means to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to care homes yet, so it has offered shots to care home workers who can travel to health clinics where the vaccine is stored in ultra-cold freezers. But by the end of March, 2021, residents and care workers alike should all be inoculated, clearing the way for seniors to be reunited with their friends and families for the first time in a year.

“Right now, we are focused on saving lives,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry explained.

The vaccine rollout plan was announced last Thursday. On Friday, the decision was underscored when the province marked its deadliest day of the pandemic – 28 COVID-19-related deaths, and all but two of the victims were seniors in care homes.

The risk to seniors has been clear almost from the start of the pandemic, and the province moved quickly to make changes to try to limit the spread, such as preventing staff from working at more than one facility.

It has made a difference, but B.C.’s Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, believes that the province could do better. She has urged the government to use its stockpile of rapid testing kits to screen care home workers for COVID-19. This would reduce the risk in care homes and would allow for greater visitation opportunities.

In a report tabled in November, after she surveyed close to half of the province’s 30,000 seniors in care, she concluded that residents have not fared well under lockdown, with a substantial increase in the use of antipsychotic medication during the period of visit restrictions, an increase in unexplained weight loss, and worsening of mood or symptoms of depression among residents.

“What are we keeping them safe for, if it is not to enjoy the time they have left with the ones they love?” Ms. Mackenzie asked.

Terry Lake, chief executive officer of the BC Care Providers Association, welcomed the commitment to get seniors and their care workers to the front of the line for the vaccine.

“The cruel fact of the pandemic is not only that COVID has targeted seniors in care, but they have suffered great loneliness as well,” he said.

Details of the vaccine rollout are still vague, as B.C. awaits distribution from Ottawa. Canada has supply agreements with seven different producers, but so far only one vaccine has been approved by Health Canada. As well, the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses, at least three weeks apart, to be fully effective.

Still, with the timeline shared by Dr. Henry last week, Mr. Lake believes families can expect to see a change in visitation rules before the spring.

“I think it is not unrealistic that in February, we should see restrictions lifted to allow more interactions,” he said.

But Mr. Lake – like the seniors advocate – remains frustrated that public-health officials have balked at utilizing rapid testing to improve screening and, in turn, the quality of life for residents. B.C. only began a pilot project last week to determine if its rapid test kits for COVID-19 would be effective as a way to ensure care home workers are not bringing the virus into their workplace.

“The failure to add screening with rapid testing, it’s a huge gap. We could have reduced the heartbreak for families,” Mr. Lake said.

“I think when we look back on our response to the pandemic, we will realize this is something we could have done better.”

For Ms. Mooney, the promise of the vaccine is the light at the end of a very long tunnel. “At least it is something concrete that we can focus on.” Her own daughter is expecting a baby, and she has already pictured the scene when the three generations can gather together.

“I’m hoping that by the fall, we can have family dinners with my mother again, we’ll have a family dinner to celebrate, she’ll be sitting here with a baby in her arms. I hope by next Christmas, she’ll be here, decorating my Christmas tree.”

The first COVID-19 vaccine injections in Canada were administered in Toronto and Quebec City within half an hour of each other on Monday. Personal support worker Anita Quidangen was the first in Ontario to get the shot.

The Globe and Mail

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