As you read this, at least six Manitoba personal care homes are struggling to contain confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks involving at least 60 residents and 41 staff. The fact we are still suffering outbreaks in facilities that care for our most vulnerable citizens, as we fast approach the two-year anniversary of the global pandemic, is both predictable and deeply troubling.
Personal care homes (PCHs) and other long-term care facilities were ravaged in earlier waves of the pandemic. Governments across Canada have taken new and aggressive measures to control the spread of the virus in these facilities with some success. However, blanket protection continues to evade our grasp.
Is it realistic to expect these facilities to be completely COVID-19 free? Perhaps not, but there remain huge gaps in safety protocols, gaps that begin with continuing to allow unvaccinated people to enter these facilities.
“I don’t like mandatory vaccines.” – Premier Heather Stefanson
Manitoba is one of the provinces that at present does not require staff at health-care facilities, including PCHs, to be fully vaccinated. It does require visitors, family and caregivers to be vaccinated but, as recent outbreaks have revealed, some facilities have been lax in enforcing these provisions.
Premier Heather Stefanson has declined to make full vaccination a requirement, arguing the health-care system in general, and PCHs in particular, cannot suffer the loss of paid staff that would inevitably come with a firm mandate. Instead, the unvaccinated can submit to regular rapid antigen testing.
"I don’t like mandatory vaccines," the premier said in a radio interview last month in response to a question about mandatory proof-of-vaccination for PCH staff. "But I do believe that there’s more work that needs to be done to ensure that we educate those individuals so that they know the science behind the vaccine,"
In deferring to the threats of the unvaccinated, the Manitoba premier — and other premiers across Canada — are putting elderly and infirm Manitobans at unnecessary risk. In short, Ms. Stefanson is allowing those Manitobans who are unvaccinated to hold our most vulnerable citizens hostage in the maddening standoff over vaccines.
Ensuring that everyone that enters a PCH or other long-term care facility is vaccinated is the least the provincial government can do to protect the people who call those places home.
Are the unvaccinated the only source of COVID-19 in these facilities? No, even fully vaccinated people can acquire and transmit the virus. But in the continuum of transmission, it is more likely a fully vaccinated person will be infected by an unvaccinated person. As such, the unvaccinated represent an unacceptable threat in long-term care facilities.
Offering unvaccinated staff the option of taking rapid antigen tests is simply not a substitute for vaccination. Rapid tests do have value, but are not sufficient protection in an environment where catching COVID-19 can be tantamount to a death sentence.
It should be noted that a growing number of private long-term care facilities have instituted vaccine mandates on their own, and without support from government. And surprisingly, none have had to curtail operations or shutter because of staffing shortages.
As was the case at Holy Family home in Winnipeg — a PCH that is currently battling an outbreak — a mandate was instituted this week and the facility has managed around the handful of employees who refuse vaccination and has remained fully staffed.
The provincial government needs to come up with a plan to keep long-term care facilities fully staffed without the help of vaccine holdouts. It’s not an exaggeration to say the lives of some of the oldest and most vulnerable Manitobans hang in the balance.