Dr. Samir Sinha’s phone rang on Saturday, as he said it often does these days. This time, the patient calling was a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.
“He’s tired of this and he’s worried. And he said, ‘don’t you know that I have a high risk of dying if I get COVID?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, you’re preaching to the choir here.’”
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However, Sinha’s patient doesn’t live in long-term care – which means he isn’t first in line to get the coronavirus vaccine in Ontario, despite the fact that he’s in a high-risk group.
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This, Sinha said, is a problem among many older adults: while vaccination rollouts in the province have prioritized older Canadians living in long-term care, seniors who are still living in the community have to wait until Phase 2 to get their jabs.
That phase doesn’t start until March, and many seniors across Canada are finding themselves in the same situation.
In November, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) provided recommendations for provinces and territories for their rollout plans. However, with ultimate discretion left to the provinces, the timelines are different in every region.
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In the recommendations, NACI said that “adults 70 years of age and older, beginning with adults 80 years of age and older,” should be included in the first phase of the vaccination rollout.
However, not everyone listened to this advice. Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec all left older Canadians out of the very first phases of their vaccination plans.
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And as some provinces delay the vaccination of older Canadians who live outside of care homes, cases continue to climb.
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In a Wednesday press release, the Public Health Agency of Canada said there are currently 71,055 active coronavirus cases across the country – with more than 6,000 new cases being reported daily.
“COVID-19 is spreading among people of all ages, with high infection rates across all age groups,” the release said.
“However, nationally, infection rates remain highest among those aged 80 years and older who are at highest risk for severe outcomes.”
While seniors across the country watch others receive their vaccines, they’re “feeling stress” waiting for their own, one advocate told Global News.
“They’re feeling abandoned, they’re feeling isolated, and we are being told very clearly what a high risk they are, and yet we are not being told clearly when that risk will be reduced,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, the president and CEO of the national seniors’ advocacy group CanAge.
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She said that while long-term care residents are getting vaccinated, the 92 per cent of Canadian seniors living in their communities continue to be “very unclear” about “when they will get vaccinated, how they will get vaccinated or what type of vaccine they will get.”
“We’ve had a failure of communication. We’ve had a failure of rollout. And seniors pay the price,” Tamblyn Watts said.
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Global News reached out to every province and territory to learn when they plan to vaccinate Canadians over the age of 70 who don’t live in long-term care. In response, the provinces and territories all said they are prioritizing Canada’s older adults in their respective vaccine rollouts.
However, they said the timeline of their vaccinations will depend on vaccine supplies and federal procurement efforts.
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Ontario and B.C. said they plan to vaccinate seniors who don’t live in long-term care during their second round of vaccinations, while Quebec’s priority list ranks seniors in the fifth, sixth and seventh slot.
Alberta, meanwhile, says it plans to vaccinate seniors during Phase 1B, which follows Phase 1A.
Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island said they intend to vaccinate older Canadians in both phases 1 and 2, while all other provinces and territories said the vaccinations would take place either in the first phase or whenever enough vaccinations become available.
“CanAge hears stories every single day from vulnerable seniors who are in the community and have no clue when they’ll ever get vaccinated. And while there’s been some communication, it’s been conflicting,” Tamblyn Watts said.
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Bill VanGorder is the Chief Policy Officer for CARP, which represents retired persons. He said the rollout plans smack of “ageism.”
“They’re feeling left out and forgotten. They feel it’s because of their age.”
He added that the recent news from Pfizer of a “temporary delay” in vaccine delivery is compounding the concern among older Canadians.
“The risk that they’ll contract COVID is going to be even greater. And that’s causing anxiety among older Canadians,” VanGorder said.
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Sinha, who specializes in working with older patients, said that he is “very concerned for seniors who aren’t living in our long-term care retirement home settings.”
And as these seniors continue to await their vaccines, Sinha said many are becoming “distraught.”
“Most of my patients, the vast majority, do not live in long term care homes, but my phone’s ringing off the hook every day,” he said.
The fear behind those calls is rooted in the reality that those seniors will face greater risk with each passing day as they await their vaccines.
“These deaths will continue to pile up, especially amongst our older population, the longer it takes for us to get them vaccinated,” Sinha said.
“This is the consequence of delaying getting vaccines into the right arms.”
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