Long-term care still struggles with rampant COVID-19 cases as Omicron wave levels off

LTC cases still rampant

It's difficult to forget the tragic scenes that played out in long-term care homes across the country in the early days of the pandemic as residents died in the thousands, isolated from their loved ones.

While vaccines have played a major role in protecting homes from the same deadly toll the first wave of COVID-19 took on residents, the impact has still been profound during the Omicron wave.

"It's staggering when you just look at the number of homes in outbreak," said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at the National Institute on Aging.

"It's just so sad when you think that in the last few weeks we've lost over 300 residents and just how unforgiving this pandemic has been, especially to those people living in our long-term care and retirement homes."

More than 34 per cent of Canada's 6,029 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak, the NIA's latest figures show.

That's twice as many homes as the second highest peak in long-term care outbreaks, when 1,000 homes were infected last January, Sinha said.

The number of outbreaks has continued to increase since the Omicron wave first struck in mid-December, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

And just in the last few days Canada marked the 16,000th death in long-term care since the pandemic began.

COVID-19 has also severely restricted the already short-staffed sector, as workers in the home have fallen ill and had to isolate.

That's led to concerns about the level of care residents are left with, and the potential for the suffering and deaths of residents who don't have the virus.

"It is very serious, what's going on," said Carole Estabrooks, scientific director of the pan-Canadian Translating Research in Elder Care program at the University of Alberta.

The latest wave has also renewed fears about restrictive isolation measures, Estabrooks said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Research is beginning to show the heavy toll prolonged isolation has taken on residents, Estabrooks said.

"It's causing deterioration and debilitation. There are early reports that suggests there have been excess mortality, excess death rates, because of the isolation," she said.

The isolation is particularly harmful to dementia patients, who make up the greatest population in long-term care, because they rely so much on routines, human connection and familiar faces, she said.

Most homes still allow a designated support person, usually a close family member, to visit the home even when other movement in and out of the homes is restricted.

But that has been one of the few gains made since the first wave, aside from vaccines, said Vivian Stamatopoulos, a long-term care researcher and associate criminology professor at Ontario Tech University.

"Those were really the only two things that meaningfully changed in long-term care. Everything else has been a disaster," Stamatopoulos said.

Several efforts have been made across the country to improve the state of long-term care through new and proposed legislation at the federal and provincial levels.

New national standards are currently in development to try to shape what good long-term care should look like in Canada.

But the results of that work may be months, if not years away.

Still, some provinces have fared better than others, Sinha said. NIA's data shows that B.C. has done a better job of keeping infections down than some others, for example, he said.

"It feels like they have made some progress in terms of how they're applying lessons learned," he said.

Some provinces have also been more diligent than others in getting booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable long-term care residents and staff, he said, which has made a difference.

"It really just shows that COVID will not be forgiving, especially if you let your guard down," he said.


Some provinces easing COVID restrictions as hospitalizations stabilize

Restrictions begin to ease

A number of provinces are tweaking their public health protocols to ease restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to show signs of stabilizing.

Saskatchewan's government said Isolation rules would be relaxed today as the province transitions to treating COVID-19's highly communicable Omicron variant like other common respiratory viruses such as influenza.

The changes include no longer requiring close contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus to self-isolate.

In Ontario cinemas, theatres, arenas and concerts will be reopening Monday, with capacity limits, but also with the ability to serve snacks and drinks.

Indoor dining will be back on the menu at restaurants, and Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that some non-urgent surgeries would be resuming.

Indoor dining at restaurants, with capacity limits, will also resume in New Brunswick starting Saturday, and students there are to return to in-person classes on Monday.

In Quebec, officials reported a significant drop in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday, although 56 new deaths were linked to the virus.

Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau will be working from home for a while after being exposed to COVID 19.

The prime minister said in a tweet Thursday that he learned of the exposure the previous night, adding that despite a subsequent rapid antigen test that was negative, he would follow public health rules and isolate for five days.

Liberal leadership candidate in twitter feud after letter supporting truck convoy and denouncing extension of vaccine passports

MLA in new Twitter feud

A new Twitter battle has erupted between Kelowna-Mission MLA and BC Liberal leadership hopeful Renee Merrifield and former Liberal MLA and current talk show host Jas Johal.

Johal, in a nine-point rant, took exception to Merrifield's Twitter post seeking support for her leadership campaign.

In the lengthy letter, Merrifield threw her support behind the truckers convoy heading to Ottawa and disagreed with the province's decision to extend the vaccine passport until at least June 1.

"The truckers rally currently driving across Canada is what happens when politicians have lost sight of common sense solutions, and have turned instead to divisive language," she wrote in part, saying truckers have kept the supply chains open throughout the pandemic.

"And (Tuesday) when the vaccine passports were extended to June 1, I wondered why?

"At a time when polls are showing one-third of British Columbians are struggling with their mental health because of COVID-19, and one-quarter report being depressed, why wouldn't we look to reduce restrictions and allow people to be together again?"

Johal, who last year also lashed out at Merrifield for comments about the NDP's lack of diversity, called the email irresponsible for anyone running for the leadership of the BC Liberal party.

He said the convoy is not representative of the trucking industry or the broader Canadian population.

"Ms. Merrifield joins Conservative MP’s, in playing footsie, with a fringe movement of anti-vaxxers, and anti-establishment types," he wrote.

"Already reports show people online are calling the trucker convoy Canada’s version of the U.S. Capitol insurrection and for the truckers to ram their trucks into Parliament, and people encouraging the hanging of politicians."

He also said health officials have stated unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to require hospitalization and 27 times more likely to require intensive care.

"Whoever wins the leadership race, must never let Ms. Merrifield near the Health portfolio ever again," wrote Johal.

Merrifield reached out to supporters, thanking them for their support over the past 24 hours, while lashing out at Johal.

"It’s attitudes like this that discourage good people from public service. No wonder our province & country are in trouble. Political debate on policy is fair game. Unprovoked attacks without accountability cross the line. Sorry you disagree.

"This is the third time this media personality has taken a run at me, and made disparaging remarks about my character. I’ve never spoken to this “man.” Despite repeated offers to speak him about his unprovoked attacks, he has not once returned my call."

The BC Liberals will elect a new leader Feb. 5.


COVID-19 outbreak at KGH declared over after 16 cases, one death

KGH outbreak declared over

The latest COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital has been declared over, after 16 people contracted the virus and one person died.

The outbreak was declared on Jan. 11 in Unit 3W, which is a surgical unit.

Eight staff members and eight patients contracted the virus over the past two weeks, and one of these 16 people died.

The local hospital has dealt with several outbreaks throughout the pandemic.

With the latest KGH outbreak declared over, there remains COVID outbreaks at 11 long-term care homes and one assisted living facility in the Interior.

Of the 62 active healthcare facility outbreaks across the province, 11 are in acute care facilities like hospitals.

COVID-positive hospitalizations increased by 3% in B.C.

2,033 new cases, 13 deaths

COVID hospitalizations increased by 3 per cent Thursday.

The province is reporting 2,033 new COVID-19 cases in B.C. in the past 24 hours, bringing the province's active cases to 29,556. Of these cases, 977 people are now hospitalized, an increase of 28 since Wednesday. Of these, 141 people are now being treated in intensive care, a drop of three.

Active cases in the province continued to drop, by 502 since Wednesday.

Of Thursday's new cases, 539 came from the Interior. There are now 7,669 active cases in the region.

Another 13 new COVID deaths have been reported throughout B.C. in the past 24 hours, including one in the Interior, seven in Fraser Health, four in Vancouver Coastal Health and one in Island Health. To date, 2,575 British Columbians have died after contracting COVID-19.

The new/active cases include:

  • 685 new cases in Fraser Health — Total active cases: 12,351
  • 378 new cases in Vancouver Coastal Health — Total active cases: 6,614
  • 539 new cases in Interior Health — Total active cases: 7,669
  • 165 new cases in Northern Health — Total active cases: 1,147
  • 266 new cases in Island Health — Total active cases: 1,768

There have been two new healthcare facility outbreaks in B.C., but the outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital has been declared over. There are now 62 ongoing outbreaks at healthcare facilities across the province.

In the past 24 hours, 44,545 doses of the vaccine were administered in B.C. As of Thursday, 89.7% of eligible people five and older in B.C. have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 83.7% have received their second dose. To date, 43% of all eligible people 12 and older have received their third booster dose.

The province says due to a “delayed refresh in data,” updates on cases and hospitalizations by vaccination status are unavailable Thursday.

Canada's top doctor says severe COVID trends still rising in most jurisdictions

Severe illness still rising

Canada's top doctor says even though the average daily COVID-19 case count across the country is down 30 per cent compared to last week, it's not an accurate reflection of the state of the pandemic.

Dr. Theresa Tam says targeted testing policies and reduced testing continue to underestimate the number of true infections, noting severe illness trends are still rising in most jurisdictions and hospitalization rates are increasing across all age groups.

Quebec announced it will begin tracking COVID-19 rapid test results through an online portal, although experts question its usefulness and the accuracy of such data.

Health Minister Christian Dube says the government-run platform will help Quebec better track COVID-19 transmission in the community, given that publicly run PCR testing is reserved for people in high-risk groups.

COVID cases fuelled by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant continue to strain hospitals, with New Brunswick's health minister saying most emergency room patients could be treated outside hospitals.

Alberta recorded its second-highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations with 1,418, one day after an overall record of 1,443.

Kelowna Chamber hopes vaccine passport system will not be extended beyond June

Card extension no surprise

Victoria Femia

The executive director of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce says he's not surprised B.C. has extended its vaccine passport system to the end of June.

“Right now people are accustomed to using the passport and the positive aspect is at least the province is communicating well in advance of the end of this month, so that businesses know what the future will unfold,” Dan Rogers told Wednesday.

“And fingers crossed it won’t be extended past that.”

Rogers said the pandemic continues to impact tourism in the Interior, however, he’s hopeful it won’t have a greater impact on the industry into the warmer months.

“Fortunately our weather is so good at that time of year, there’s lots of activities that will occur outside, so there will be a bit of a shift of what occurs inside versus outside," he said.

“I think overall we’ll see good news come summer time for our tourism sector.”

Leader of the BC Libertarian Party Keith MacIntyre joined a protest outside the Castanet office in Kelowna Wednesday, protesting the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and media coverage of the pandemic.

MacIntyre shared his disapproval of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s decision to extend the vaccine card system, calling the decision "mind boggling."

“Coercing people into getting a medical treatment is illegal and therefore the vaccine mandates are illegal,” said MacIntyre.

MacIntyre added that vaccine passports are tough on businesses, and claimed businesses are “tired” of checking them.

“They don’t want to be checking people’s medical information, they’re not government enforcers, they don’t want to be doing this, so I’m encouraging businesses to just stop,” said MacIntyre.

On Wednesday, the B.C. announced 21 more COVID-positive people died in the past 24 hours alongside 2,086 new COVID-19 cases.

COVID-positive hospitalizations decreased by 3.6% in B.C.

2,086 new cases, 21 deaths

COVID hospitalizations dropped slightly Wednesday, by 3.6 per cent.

The province is reporting 2,086 new COVID-19 cases in B.C. in the past 24 hours, bringing the province's active cases to 30,058. Of these cases, 949 people are now hospitalized, a decrease of 36 since Tuesday. Of these, 144 people are now being treated in intensive care, a drop of eight.

Active cases in the province dropped by 2,410 since Tuesday.

Of Wednesday's new cases, 455 came from the Interior. There are now 7,434 active cases in the region.

Another 21 new COVID deaths have been reported throughout B.C. in the past 24 hours, including 10 in Fraser Health, six in Vancouver Coastal Health and five in Island Health. To date, 2,575 British Columbians have died after contracting COVID-19.

The new/active cases include:

  • 780 new cases in Fraser Health — Total active cases: 12,776
  • 464 new cases in Vancouver Coastal Health — Total active cases: 6,873
  • 455 new cases in Interior Health — Total active cases: 7,434
  • 168 new cases in Northern Health — Total active cases: 1,186
  • 219 new cases in Island Health — Total active cases: 1,781

There have been five new healthcare facility outbreaks in B.C. There are now 61 ongoing outbreaks at healthcare facilities across the province.

In the past 24 hours, 45,195 doses of the vaccine were administered in B.C. As of Friday, 89.6% of eligible people five and older in B.C. have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 83.6% have received their second dose. To date, 41.3% of all eligible people 12 and older have received their third booster dose.

From Jan. 18-24, people not fully vaccinated accounted for 28.2% of cases and from Jan. 11-24, they accounted for 29.9% of hospitalizations.

Past week, cases per 100,000 population after adjusting for age (Jan. 18-24)

  • Not vaccinated: 410.5
  • Partially vaccinated: 201.6
  • Fully vaccinated: 233.9

Past two weeks, cases hospitalized per 100,000 population after adjusting for age (Jan. 11-24)

  • Not vaccinated: 85.2
  • Partially vaccinated: 51.4
  • Fully vaccinated: 20.0

Past week cases (Jan. 18-24) - Total 13,400

  • Not vaccinated: 2,996 (22.4%)
  • Partially vaccinated: 778 (5.8%)
  • Fully vaccinated: 9,626 (71.8%)

Past two weeks cases hospitalized (Jan. 11-24) - Total 1,328

  • Not vaccinated: 334 (25.2%)
  • Partially vaccinated: 63 (4.7%)
  • Fully vaccinated: 931 (70.1%)

Moderna begins testing omicron-matched COVID shots in adults

Omicron vaccine tests start

Moderna has begun testing an omicron-specific COVID-19 booster in healthy adults.

The company announced Wednesday that the first participant had received a dose. Earlier this week, competitor Pfizer began a similar study of its own reformulated shots.

It’s not clear whether global health authorities will order a change to the vaccine recipe in the wake of the hugely contagious omicron variant. The original vaccines still offer good protection against death and severe illness. Studies in the U.S. and elsewhere show a booster dose strengthens that protection and improves the chances of avoiding even a milder infection.

Moderna pointed to a small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday that showed antibodies able to target omicron persisted for six months after a booster dose, although the levels were dropping.

Moderna’s new study will enroll about 600 people who already have received either two doses of the company’s original shots or two plus a booster dose. All the volunteers will receive a dose of the experimental omicron-matched version.

North Okanagan First Nation struggling with increase in COVID cases

COVID rises in Splatsin

Chief Doug Thomas is urging Splatsin residents to stay home as the North Okanagan First Nation grapples with a COVID outbreak.

The newly elected Kukpi7 (Chief) says the number of cases continue to rise.

On Jan. 20, Thomas posted a note on the Splatsin website stating cases had tripled in less than a week, and the number of individuals in self-isolation had doubled.

At that time, there were 15 COVID-19-positive individuals and 46 in self-isolation.

But, a week later, Thomas says there are currently as many as 27 COVID-19-positive individuals in the community and an additional 24 to 37 in self-isolation.

“Please understand the tools at hand remain the same to combat this disease,” Thomas said in a Youtube video, urging people to stay at home if possible until Friday, postpone gatherings, wash hands often or use sanitizer, wear a face mask in public indoor spaces, and keep a six-foot physical distance.

“According to 97 per cent of doctors, vaccination is still one of the most effective tools to combat the spread and lessen the severity of these viruses,” said Thomas. “The new strains are increasingly airborne, which is a good reason to limit physical interaction. The City of Enderby and Splatsin still have one of the lowest vaccination rates.”

Thomas reiterated the importance of the vaccine, noting “the elderly have been the most vulnerable” and a vaccine is a good tool to help protect the vulnerable, young and old.

In response to the outbreak, Splatsin offices remain closed to protect the health and safety of band members and staff, and ensure services and programs remain unaffected.

The closure will expire at 8:30 a.m. Friday. Impacted offices include the band office, community centre and Shihiya school.

For non-medical emergencies, contact senior executive advisor Steve Kulmatycki at 250-309-2961.

Survey reveals widening gap between views of double-vaxxed and boosted people

Growing gap on boosters

A new survey suggests a widening gap between the pandemic views of people who have opted to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster and those who are holding steady with only two shots.

A web panel survey carried out by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies shows 67 per cent of people with a booster dose who responded are afraid of contracting COVID-19, compared to just 52 per cent of those with two doses.

"We're seeing what I call a 'booster hesitancy,' as opposed to a vaccine hesitancy, and it's shaping some of their attitudes. Their level of concern about COVID is a bit different from the boosted. The degree to which they're concerned about the vaccination is a bit different," said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

For instance, 82 per cent of boosted respondents said they supported vaccine mandates at shopping malls and retail outlets, compared to only 57.8 per cent of people with two doses.

And 79 per cent of boosted people responded that they strongly support vaccine mandates in other non-essential public places like bars, restaurants and gyms.

That's compared to only 48 per cent of people with two vaccine doses.

There appears to be a growing split between the "boosted and the two-timers," Jedwab said.

"The issue takes on a bit more complexity than it (had) previously," he said.

People who received a booster shot were also more likely to respond that governments should not lift COVID-19 restrictions, at 85 per cent, compared to 71.5 per cent of people with two doses.

Generally, unvaccinated people responded at the other far end of the spectrum, with 65 per cent responding that COVID-19 restrictions should be lifted, and 94 per cent expressing opposition to vaccine mandates in shopping centres.

"They're in a completely different place," said Jedwab.

The results were gathered from 1,547 Canadians over the age of 18 between Jan. 7 and Jan. 9, and cannot be assigned a margin of error because the web survey did not randomly sample the population.

The number of COVID-19 cases have hit record highs in January thanks to the Omicron variant of the virus, which is said to be relatively more mild compared to past variants but can infect even vaccinated people.

Governments and public health officials have urged Canadians to get a third mRNA vaccine to protect them against the most serious effects of the virus, which has still sent people to the hospital in large numbers and threatened to overrun Canadian health systems.

The booster can also stave off the effects of waning immunity from the first two shots, which appear to offer less protection against contracting the virus over time.

About 41 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 have opted for a COVID-19 booster as of Jan. 15, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, but the survey suggests 73 per cent of respondents intend to get three shots.

At the same time, less than 10 per cent of adults have eschewed vaccination against the virus altogether.

Of those with two doses who say they don't want a third, 25.5 per cent said they don't believe a booster would work, and 14 per cent said they felt that two shots are enough.

Those reasons are very different from the ones given my people who have opted to remain completely unvaccinated, who since the beginning of the vaccine rollout least year have typically said they're more afraid of vaccine side-effects than the virus itself, Jedwab said.

In this latest poll, the unvaccinated were six times more worried about vaccine side-effects than getting COVID-19.

"That's not what people who are double-vaccinated are saying and it's not any meaningful degree," he said.

Only eight per cent of double-vaxxed people reported being concerned about the side-effects of the booster.

"They're more concerned with its effectiveness. So it will be up to policy-makers to remind people about the effectiveness."

COVID infection rates peaking in some provinces, surging in others

COVID peaks and surges

As the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the pandemic appears to be peaking in some provinces, prompting plans to ease some COVID-19 restrictions, others are still dealing with surging cases pushing hospitals to the brink.

With a record 1,377 COVID patients in hospital, emergency wards in Alberta face long wait times and multiple red alerts, which means no ambulances are sometimes available.

The provincial health authority confirmed Tuesday that a patient died while waiting for care in an emergency ward.

The Baffin Island community of Igloolik, which has a population of about 1,600, is under a strict lockdown, with all offices and schools closed and travel restricted as COVID-19 spreads rapidly among households.

Youth sports tournaments in B.C. will be allowed to resume on Feb. 1, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is extending the use of the proof-of-vaccine card until June 30, calling it an important tool to allow restaurants, fitness centres, and events to continue to operate.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault says the province will slowly begin to loosen some COVID-19 restrictions, beginning Monday with restaurants able to resume in-person dining at half capacity and no more than four people, or two different households, at a table.

Students in Newfoundland and Labrador returned to in-person classes Tuesday after learning from home since Jan. 4, although the province's teachers association says its members feel it's not yet safe to open schools.

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