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Housebound seniors worried they’ll be forgotten in vaccine drive

Last Updated Mar 24, 2021 at 3:10 pm EDT

Many of the tens of thousands of Ontario seniors who can’t leave their homes are concerned they will be overlooked in local vaccination efforts as the province rushes to inoculate as many people as possible.

“I don’t want to lose my dad now and I don’t want to lose him to COVID-19, because this is something that’s preventable,” said Leonora Scarpino-Inglese, whose 90-year-old father, Leone Scarpino, lives at home and is bedridden. She said it would be impossible for him to go to a mass vaccination clinic and wait for hours on end, as many seniors have been forced to do.

“Not without an ambulance. We would have to rent a medical lift to get him out of bed, and he probably would not even be able to sit in a wheelchair because he’s so fragile that everything hurts,” said Scarpino-Inglese. “He would have to go in a stretcher.”

Scarpino-Inglese says getting her father vaccinated at home has been an exercise in frustration. While he is on a waitlist, they have no idea when he’ll actually be inoculated.

At least half of Ontario seniors aged 80 or older have now been vaccinated, but they are largely the ones living in long-term care or who can go to a vaccination clinic.

“I reached out to public health, I was bounced around a couple of times. I finally got an email basically telling me there’s no plan: ‘If you want to get him to a clinic here are the links’,” she said, “Personally I feel they have been forgotten.”

She fears her father is at high risk of COVID-19 entering his home. Three different personal support workers come to see him every day, three additional people come to feed him, and family members care for him on weekends.

“We have a mini long term-care home,” she said, adding that fear of COVID-19 has contributed to the family’s decision to keep him at home.

Leone’s wife of 65 years, Maria, died in February. Leonora says her mother’s final wish was that her dad not be put into a long-term care home.

Scarpino-Inglese is not alone in fearing vulnerable seniors will fall through the cracks. There’s a hashtag, #NoElderLeftBehind – and in Ontario there are thousands who could be.

“We can probably estimate that across Ontario, there’s 40,000 individuals that we would see be homebound. People who for example getting a vaccine in their own home is a necessity, not a convenience,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health.

Getting vaccines to homebound seniors is a logistical challenge. They need to be properly stored and thawed. Healthcare workers need to stay to monitor for side effects.

Another concern is making sure every homebound senior is reached. There are language challenges, and not all of them have the computer skills to reach out for help.

Some homebound seniors have been getting vaccinated – but it depends on where they live.

This week, York Region started vaccinating homebound people, and those receiving homecare, a spokesperson tells CityNews.

The region is working on compiling a list of homebound residents, and a mobile vaccination team will reach out directly to residents to schedule at-home appointments.

York also vaccinated about 500 otherwise homebound people at a pilot drive-through vaccination centre at Canada’s Wonderland on March 18.

The health unit plans to expand drive-through locations and expects about 3,000 homebound people with partial mobility will be able to attend.

CityNews reached out to every public health unit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area about how they plan to ensure housebound seniors are vaccinated.

They’re at varied stages of planning and execution.

Toronto is working with Toronto Community Housing to go door-to-door in more than 80 publicly run seniors buildings in the city, signing up elders and bringing vaccines to them. The ongoing effort will eventually reach 14,000 seniors.

In addition, Toronto Public Health says mobile teams are working with local hospitals to reach seniors living in their own homes and receiving homecare.

“This is going to take weeks, if not a month or two, to get this done,” warned Dr. Sinha. “We only have so many paramedics who can be spared to do this work. We only have so many primary care providers.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton Public Health Services tells CityNews it hopes to begin vaccinating homebound people soon. The public health team is working with St. Joseph’s Healthcare, paramedics and provincial health authorities on planning.

“Together, these groups are identifying who these community members are and the logistics of vaccination doses being transported to these populations – ideally it’s in single-dose syringes, but work is being done to see if other vaccines (six-dose vials) can be utilized for homebound community members,” Hamilton Public Health Services said in a statement.

Durham Region is also still in the planning stages but says it’s working on mobile clinics to provide vaccine to populations and individuals who may have difficulty accessing larger clinics, including adults who use home care services and who can’t come to a vaccination clinic.

“It’s very easy to say that we’ll vaccinate seniors accessing homecare,” notes Dr. Sinha. “But there are a lot of people who are homebound who are not receiving government-funded homecare. What about them?”

“You quickly start realizing that we can have thousands of people falling through the cracks,” he adds.

In the hard-hit Peel Region, the response is much the same: the vaccination plan for people stuck at home is still in early days. Peel Public Health tells CityNews it’s working with its health network, home care agencies, primary care providers and community groups to develop a strategy for vaccinating homebound seniors.

“While we are advising all eligible individuals who are able to get vaccinated at a clinic location to do so, suitable mobile options will be available for those who are unable to attend clinics, in the coming weeks,” the health unit says in a statement.

Meanwhile, one doctor says Peel patients are getting anxious.

“Almost every person that I call, either them or their family members, they’re asking ‘Where is their vaccine?’” said Dr. Amit Arya. “This to me makes no sense as to why this high-priority and high-risk population was not thought of in this vaccine rollout, and it was not thought of as really the number one priority after long-term care and other congregate settings.”

In Halton Region, they are currently working on a plan for how to best provide vaccines to individuals. One of the hurdles is the type of vaccine Halton is using. As of right now, they have been mainly using the Pfizer vaccine which is not easily transportable within the community.

Halton says they have recently received the Moderna vaccine and are exploring ways to transport the vaccine to those who are housebound. They will be providing more information when the plan is finalized.

Provincial health leaders say they are working with local public health units to vaccinate this population of seniors.

“We have not forgotten, it continues to be a conversation on a regular basis,” said Dr. Dirk Huyer, coordinator of Ontario’s provincial outbreak response

For Scarpino-Inglese, a vaccine for her dad can’t come soon enough. “We can prevent this if he is vaccinated,” she says. “We want a sense of hope.”