HomeHealthCOVID-19 outbreaks, deaths continue to plague Alberta's care homes

COVID-19 outbreaks, deaths continue to plague Alberta’s care homes

Mary Harris is spending the days leading up to her 100th birthday  confined to one wing of her long-term care home as a COVID-19 outbreak sweeps through the facility, once again.

“I’m sure It’s depressing. My mother gets agitated by it and tries to escape,” said her daughter, Joyce Harris.

Through Alberta’s six pandemic waves,  Mary — who has dementia and is no longer able to communicate after having a stroke — has struggled with being periodically confined as the facility tries to contain the spread of the virus.

She contracted COVID-19 in January during another outbreak and while her symptoms were mild, she had to be isolated in her room for two weeks.

 According to her daughter,  the mental health impacts are dramatic and ongoing.

“With restrictions being relaxed in the general public its once again its the residents of long-term care that are bearing the brunt of these new waves that come along,” said Joyce.

More than 200 outbreaks

As many Albertans return to their pre-pandemic routines, COVID-19 continues to take a significant toll on care homes in the province.

There are currently 202 publicly reported outbreaks in long-term care and supportive living facilities. While the number remains high it has dropped since the provincial COVID-19 statistics were last updated one week ago.

“It has been somewhat challenging with the Omicron wave being so highly transmissible and having some of the community restrictions being lifted,” said Wayne Morishita, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association.

 “What we have been concerned about is we have seen rising infections even in this [BA.2] wave…You can see there has been an increase in outbreaks,” he said. “We’ve also seen a slight rise in hospitalizations.”

Morishita believes a combination of factors are to blame including high community transmission rates.

“And the second thing would be the waning immunity of the third dose that our seniors had received. That was the reason we were advocating so strongly for that fourth dose to be made available.”

Mary Harris, 99, visits with her grandson at her long-term care facility in Calgary. She has dementia and her family says bouts of isolation through six waves of the pandemic have taken a toll on her mental health (Joyce Harris)

6th wave care home deaths top 100

According to Alberta Health, there have been 134 COVID-related deaths among continuing care residents since the start of the BA.2-driven sixth wave in early March.

During the preceding fifth wave, which was sparked by  the BA.1 variant and lasted from mid-December to late February,  the province reports there were 266 deaths.

The fourth wave, in the fall of 2021, had a lower death toll of 153.

“Both [the fifth and sixth wave] numbers are far less than the 1,042 deaths in the second wave, which took place prior to widespread vaccination. This underscores the powerful protective effect of vaccines and the importance of Albertans getting all the doses they are eligible for,” Alberta Health spokesperson Lisa Glover said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

The province expanded fourth dose eligibility to include all seniors living in congregate care in early April amid concerns third dose immunity was waning among the most vulnerable Albertans.  By then the BA.2 subvariant was driving cases up again.

Health Minister Jason Copping said at a news conference Wednesday that getting those shots out is a priority for the government.

“Over the last month, public health teams across the province have been working closely with continuing care operators to ensure they have the support they need for their residents to get a fourth dose,” he said.

“AHS will continue to work with them until all sites have been able to offer residents the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Kathy Tam, CEO of Wing Kei Care Centres, says staff have been working to keep residents safe through six waves of the pandemic. While their residents have mostly experienced mild cases of COVID during the sixth wave, she says, its very challenging to protect residents (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

More than 120,000 eligible Albertans have received fourth doses.  Alberta Health wouldn’t say what percentage of continuing care residents have had their second booster but did say uptake varies by zone.

At the Wing Kei Care Centres in Calgary, which provide long-term care and supportive living, most residents have now received their fourth dose and staff are focused on preventing any spread.

“We’re really thankful for the vaccine….You can see the difference with the other waves,” said CEO Kathy Tam.

Her care homes have seen far more COVID-19 cases in residents and staff during this latest surge but most, she said, are mild or asymptomatic. 

“Keeping our residents safe and preventing them from getting any illness is really our calling and it’s no less challenging even though it’s less severe.”

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