Dr. Mustafa Hirji isn’t “super-thilled” with the amount of Pfizer vaccine coming to Niagara this week, but he is very excited that the group suffering the most amount of deaths, the very vulnerable residents of long-term care and assisted living homes, will be getting it in the coming days.
The province won’t allow the acting medical officer of health to release numbers of the vaccines being shipped, and although the amount “is not terrific, it’s something we can work with.”
Niagara Health received its vaccines at its St. Catharines Hospital site Tuesday to begin administering shots Wednesday, also handing off vaccine vials to Public Health, to be transported to long-term care homes and high-risk retirement homes. Public Health nurses will be providing support for staff as they vaccinate their residents, following a protocol carried out every year for seasonal influenza, says Hirji, “building off something we know works.”
It means getting the vaccine quickly to a group of people who are dying from COVID-19, he adds, in order to prevent more tragedies.
“Throughout this pandemic, residents of long-term care homes and retirement homes have suffered the brunt of this pandemic,” says Hirji.
Almost 80 per cent of those who’ve died in Niagara —150 people in our community, as of Monday — have been among these residents; 72 of them have died in the last three weeks alone.
Once residents and their care providers are immunized, he says, lives will be saved.
“The challenge of using the Pfizer vaccine outside of the hospital setting is the need to keep it frozen and stable. Once it’s thawed it’s stable for about five days, but you really can’t move it far from that fridge. At room temperature it’s good for about four to five hours and then it’s spoiled, so keep it in the fridge, and then take it out just before you’re ready to use it,” he says.
There is a prioritization of long-term care homes, looking at their history of outbreaks, and how difficult to manage they’ve been to manage during outbreaks, says Hirji. He expects to have residents of all 34 long-term care homes in about three weeks..
Public Health nurse teams will be working seven days a week on the long-term care vaccination rollout, just as all Public Health staff are now, says Hirji.
Niagara Health is running the vaccination clinics at the hospital, he says, and prioritizing health care workers within the hospital staff. Those working on COVID wards, in emergency departments and intensive care units are likely going to be considered at a higher risk, he says.
After the first stage of health care workers, long-term care residents and Indigenous populations, he expects to see adults with chronic care issues, and essential workers next, with EMS staff “a bit earlier because of course they’re just like other health care workers. They’re probably going to end up being vaccinated relatively soon.”
The number of people recorded as testing positive Monday was twice as high as any other day since the pandemic began, but at least 200 of the 471 cases were catch-ups that have been building up since the holiday, and became a back-log requiring some information checks. That process was automated over the weekend, and the backlog cleared up, Hirji says, but many of the rest of the more than 200 cases were people who met with family members, sometimes with everybody at one holiday gathering tested positive.
“It’s definitely disappointing that the public, along with high-profile people, didn’t follow the rules, and have created this situation,” he says, but “I’m hoping that everybody will take note of how high our cases are now, and will really pull together so we can start to get a better handle on COVID-19, get the numbers down and keep them down, at least long enough so we can roll out the vaccine and get everybody protected.”
The shutdown now will help, and the province is announcing additional measures, although not a curfew, “to keep nudging people,” which should help, says Hirji. “I think it’s unfortunate it is taking a lockdown to do that, as opposed to what could have been voluntary actions. Hopefully with another chance to do this right, we will do it better.”
When the province announced the lockdown before Christmas, but said it wouldn’t start until Boxing Day, Hirji believes they missed an opportunity.
“I think it would have made a difference” if the lockdown had begun Dec. 21, he says. Instead, the delay may have given people licence to rush out and use those days to finish shopping, and to get together on Christmas one last time before staying within their households, “and we’re seeing the negative impact of the behaviour now. I really do think once that shutdown was announced, the clock should have started ticking at midnight that night.”
The region is behind on following through with the cases because of the number of new ones, he says, but social gatherings are a big part of them, and many cases are in long-term care homes.
The region is prioritizing following up with long-term care residents and staff, “because that’s where we’re seeing the most illnesses and death.”
There were fewer cases of workplace transmissions, he says, but with people returning to work after the holiday, that could change.
When the numbers go up in the community, the risk is greater in long-term care, but also in other places, including essential workplaces, stores, and schools.
In addition to staying home to stop the opportunity for infection to spread, Hirji says his other message is to those who have been tested but haven’t heard from the region. Be patient, sometimes it will be a couple of days before they hear from someone in Public Health, he says, “because our cases are so high.”
And also be patient while waiting for the vaccine, he says, by focusing on what we can do right now to stop the spread of infection, and once the vaccine is here, “hopefully everybody will be very excited to get it.”