Nursing home worker calls for transparency as COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues

An Alberta health-care worker is raising questions about how front-line staff in long-term care homes are being prioritized for the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine.

People working in Alberta’s long-term care and designated supportive living facilities are currently receiving their first dose of the vaccine as part of the provincial government’s first wave of distribution, which is expected to be complete by the end of January.

As of Monday evening, Alberta Health reported more than 16,000 staff in long-term care and designated supportive-living facilities had received their first dose.

Those staff do not include a health-care aide, who CBC News has chosen to call Mary, who works at a Good Samaritan long-term care home in southern Alberta. CBC has agreed to withhold her name and her specific location because she is concerned she could lose her job for speaking out.

Mary says she works directly with residents.

She has not received the COVID-19 vaccine nor has she been contacted by Alberta Health Services for an appointment. She claims others in the facility including administrative and maintenance staff have already received their first shot.

‘Confusing and frustrating’

“I’m glad that the people who have been vaccinated have had the opportunity to be vaccinated for sure. [But] it scares me a little, to be honest,” she said. “There are people who are visiting residents who we have to remind them to wear their masks because we’ve seen them take them off in the facility,”

Mary claims some of the staff getting vaccinated ahead of her do not have as much direct contact with residents.

While there is no outbreak at her facility, she calls the situation “confusing and frustrating.”

She’s still waiting to be contacted by AHS for her first dose but was told over the weekend that any staff who have not yet received the shot will be vaccinated on site this week.

“I wish that there was more transparency from the government on how this vaccination is being rolled out and the policies and procedures that are in place. We just don’t know. I don’t even know if my employer knows the rhyme or reason as to who is chosen and who is waiting.”

AHS responsible for distribution

The Good Samaritan Society said Alberta Health Services is responsible for the distribution and prioritization of the vaccine, and said it is working to support that process by providing AHS with employee information.

“While AHS is leading the vaccine rollout, it should be noted that anyone required to be in the resident care areas to perform their work would be on the list to receive the vaccine in this initial rollout,” said Dr. Katherine Chubbs, Good Samaritan President and CEO in a statement emailed to CBC News, adding that she’s thankful employees are starting to receive their first doses.

AHS did not directly answer CBC’s inquiries regarding how decisions are being made as to which continuing-care workers get the vaccine first.

AHS would only say those eligible for the vaccine include clinical staff and those in non-clinical roles who come into contact with continuing-care residents.

“The vaccination of non-clinical staff is being done to protect the vulnerable and elderly residents in the facility,” spokesperson James Wood said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

“Administrators, maintenance workers, kitchen staff, and other non-clinical staff play an integral role in ensuring sites can continue to operate properly and safely. They are in regular contact with residents and other staff during their daily work. Having such non-clinical staff immunized helps protect patients, residents and other staff as well.”

CBC reached out to Alberta Health to clarify how the process works. A spokesperson said decisions are not taken lightly, and are made strategically — not through a lottery system. 

“When a site is ready for immunization and there are available AHS resources and vaccine, AHS notifies all eligible staff — clinical and non-clinical — via email, to book their COVID-19 immunization appointment online. If staff are already onsite, they may have the opportunity to be immunized when residents are receiving their immunization,’ the statement read.

The spokesperson said all residents and staff in long-term care and designated supportive living facilities are on track to be vaccinated by Jan. 18. 

Union calls for clarity

The president of CUPE Alberta — which represents health-care aides, licensed practical nurses and other workers in continuing care — said he’s not aware of widespread problems with the prioritization of vaccine distribution in long-term care.

“So far the general consensus seems to be it’s going as smoothly as it could be. Which is not to say … in individual sites or in individual wards there may be issues with people not getting the right vaccinations,” said Rory Gill.

But he called the southern Alberta health-care aide’s story concerning and said part of the problem is a lack of communication.

“There’s not a lot of great information on how it’s being prioritized. We encourage the province [and] AHS to do as much communication with providers in the different facilities as they can and get as much information out to staff and residents as they can; when this is going to happen, how it’s going to happen.”

According to University of Alberta nursing professor Donna Wilson, government transparency is key as the vaccine rollout ramps up.

“I think this is a very important time to have open and transparent communication so that people can say, ‘alright, there’s a chance then that this is being fair, this is how long I’m going to wait for my vaccine,'” she said.

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“This is not a time for closed-box decision-making,” said Wilson, whose research focuses on aging, end-of-life care and ethics.

Because the COVID-19 vaccine is a scarce resource, Wilson said it will be the focus of much scrutiny and there will very likely be other complaints. She argued health officials need to share the reasons why some health-care workers are getting the vaccine before others.

“Are you making decisions based on the most risk — who is [most likely] to die of this? Are you basing decisions on the most risk of who is going to be sick and in hospital? Are you making arbitrary decisions or not,” she said.

“I’m not surprised that some nursing home staff are wondering what’s going on, because I think just about everybody else in Alberta, if they aren’t starting to wonder what’s going on, they will be very quickly,” she said.

Others happy with rollout

Meanwhile, the CEO of the Brenda Strafford Foundation, which runs several care homes in Calgary, said residents and staff are getting their shots earlier than he anticipated and while there may have been some expected early bumps, he’s pleased with the roll-out.

“As late as November I was predicting we wouldn’t get [the] vaccine for another 12 to 14 weeks. So I think we’re thrilled that we’ve been able to vaccinate the numbers that we have,” said Mike Conroy.

“It’s easy to criticize. And we’ve been critics of certain things. But I think we’re very grateful that we’ve seen the vaccine this early.”

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