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ONTARIO: Vaccinations in long-term care homes saved hundreds of lives, report says

Deaths from COVID-19 among long-term care residents were reduced by 96 per cent eight weeks after vaccinations began in December

Vaccinations in Ontario long-term care homes have prevented hundreds of COVID-19 deaths and thousands of infections, scientists advising the province said in a report released Monday.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said that eight weeks after vaccinations began in December, infections were reduced by 89 per cent among long-term care residents and by 79 per cent among workers.

Deaths from COVID-19 among long-term care residents were reduced by 96 per cent over the same period. 

"These data highlight the importance of accelerating vaccine rollout to priority populations who are at disproportionately high risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, COVID-19 hospitalization and death," the report said. 

Ontario's vaccine rollout began in December with long-term care workers after Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for use in the country. Nursing home residents started to get vaccinated towards the end of that month. 

Those two groups were prioritized for vaccines given the high rates of deaths and infections in the long-term care sector since the pandemic began. 

The report noted that long-term care residents represent less than one per cent of Ontario's population but have made up more than half of the COVID-19 deaths in the province. 

The researchers behind the report estimated that vaccinations prevented more than 2,600 infections, 250 hospitalizations and 615 deaths, most of those among residents, between Dec. 14, 2020 and Feb. 23. 

The report noted that 92 per cent of long-term care residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 23, with that number rising to 95 per cent by March 5.

Monday's report also said strong provincewide public health measures implemented in December and January had worked along with vaccinations to prevent infections.

"This emphasizes that public health measures will need to be maintained alongside vaccination, until vaccine-based immunity has been afforded to the entire population," the report said. 

Completing maximum uptake of vaccinations in the homes "will maximize the safety and well-being of Ontario’s LTC residents and staff," the report said.

Vaccine uptake among long-term care staff was at 68 per cent as of March 5 -- lower than the reported vaccination intention rate of 80 per cent among unionized workers, the report noted. 

Closing the vaccination gap among workers is "essential," the report said, and may require communication as well as financial supports like paid time off, transportation to a vaccination site and sick leave in case people miss work due to side-effects. 

Researchers also noted that "a substantial number" of Ontario long-term care residents may have already achieved some immunity to COVID-19 due to previous infection. 

That might have increased apparent vaccine effectiveness when compared with the unvaccinated control population living in the community, they said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press