OTTAWA—Canada’s nursing homes were among the hardest hit in the world at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But now early data show that transmission and deaths from the virus are dropping sharply.
Despite the slow pace of Canada’s overall vaccine rollout, health officials have pushed ahead with inoculations in the country’s nursing homes; about 85% of adults there have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Nearly a third have received two doses.
Data released this week from Ontario, Canada’s most-populous province, indicate the relative risk of death from Covid-19 among nursing-home populations has fallen by 96%. Analyses from other regions of the country suggest a similar trend. At Ontario facilities, the relative risk of Covid-19 infection fell 89% among residents and 79% among healthcare workers.
The findings were based on data as of Feb. 23, at which time 92% of nursing-home residents had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, versus 55% among nursing-home staff. The authors measured how much the treatment reduced the risk of bad outcomes relative to a group of unvaccinated adults aged 70 years or older who live in their own homes in the community.
“This is the first piece of real good news for this sector of the population,” said Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and assistant scientific director of Ontario’s Covid-19 advisory panel, which produced the report with data showing the sharp drop in the risk of death.
Dr. Samir Sinha, head of geriatrics at the University Health Network group of hospitals in Toronto and co-chairman of Ryerson University’s aging institute, said the number of Covid-19 outbreaks at the country’s 5,800 nursing homes has plummeted by 70% since early January. This coincides with marked declines over the past two months in the seven-day average of confirmed Covid-19 cases, from over 9,000 to under 3,000, and related hospitalizations, from over 4,000 to 1,600.
Dr. Sinha said the bulk of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and related deaths nationwide now involve individuals 65 and over who still live at home. “That’s why the race is on to get as many of them vaccinated as we can,” he said. Provinces, such as Ontario, are now focusing on that segment of the population in the second phase of their vaccination rollouts.
Canada’s nursing homes were hit harder than those in any other major economy during the early months of the pandemic, with roughly 80% of Canada’s virus deaths tied to such facilities. In comparison, nursing homes accounted for under 40% of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. For the totals to date, nursing homes account for two-thirds of Canada’s Covid-19 deaths but only 9% of cases, according to data tracked by the National Institute on Ageing, part of Toronto’s Ryerson University.
When the pandemic hit, many of the country’s long-term-care facilities—a mix of publicly owned and for-profit homes—were understaffed, poorly equipped and rundown. Canadian army medics and soldiers were dispatched to help regional officials control outbreaks in these homes.
“Long-term-care homes were the epicenter of the virus in [Ontario] for the better part of the pandemic. And the vaccines have now almost totally extinguished the fire,” Dr. Stall said. He described the study’s findings as “spectacular,” adding that the results vindicate the decision by authorities in Canada to initially target nursing-home residents and staff in the vaccination rollout. The U.S. and the U. K.—both well ahead of Canada to date in inoculating their populations—also advised that nursing-home residents be a priority.
John Yip, chief executive officer at Kensington Health, a Toronto-based not-for-profit entity that operates a nursing home for 350 residents, has watched a dozen residents die of Covid-19 in the past year. He said the mood among staff and residents has brightened with the vaccination rollout. To date, over 95% of Kensington residents have received two doses, and the nursing home has been free of Covid-19 for about a month.
Mr. Yip said the spouse of a dementia-suffering resident wrote to him this week to relay that “things are getting better,” telling him how the couple shared a dance, while masked, to an Elvis Presley song during a visit. Others, he said sporting smiles for the first time in a while.
“I think we are almost there,” Mr. Yip said, about returning to a semblance of normalcy. The shift in Canada comes as federal authorities in the U.S. lifted visiting restrictions on nursing homes this week amid widespread vaccinations.
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Pandemic rules in Canada for nursing homes vary by region, although for the most part they remain stringent: there is generally a limit on visitors, with a focus on family members deemed essential caregivers.
British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control said last month that a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine reduced the risk of transmission among long-term-care residents and healthcare workers by 80% within two to three weeks of vaccination. Data from Quebec, which has the most Covid-19 cases and deaths tied to nursing homes, suggest that four weeks after inoculation the vaccine’s effectiveness in containing transmission among long-term-care residents reached 80%.
Canada’s vaccination rate, or doses administered on an adjusted basis, has climbed sharply in the past two weeks to reach 7%, although it trails nearly all major European economies and lags well behind the U.K. and U.S. As of Thursday, the seven-day average in doses administered had surged 56% over two weeks, as Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. accelerated shipments to make up for shortages earlier in the quarter due to retooling and supply-chain bottlenecks.
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