Shirley May Clouter moved into a long-term care facility in Guelph, Ont., on Dec. 10, 2021, and one month later, the 95-year-old died after contracting COVID-19.
Her granddaughter, Vanessa Lodge, said family members stood outside a glass enclosure just steps away, but still apart, from Clouter in her final moments at Guelph General Hospital on Jan. 9.
"This, honestly, was our biggest fear … my mom, my sisters and I, it was grandma going into the home and dying from COVID. And she did," Lodge said.
Now, along with the grief, the close-knit family has many questions about what happened.
Lodge said her grandmother didn't have her third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine when she moved into LaPointe Fisher Nursing Home, but the family was told by staff that it was OK, and they'd get her the booster shot.
But that never happened.
When Clouter started to feel unwell on Jan. 4, she was given a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test. The results came back Jan. 8 and confirmed she had COVID-19, Lodge said. That same day, Clouter was taken to Guelph General Hospital, where she died a day later.
Lodge questions why no one at the home told them they were having trouble securing a third dose for her grandmother.
"My mom worked in the health-care system for almost her whole career. She would have just called up her doctor and gotten her one," Lodge said.
WATCH | Vanessa Lodge recalls fond memories of her grandmother:
Homes have policies for vaccination
The outbreak at the 92-bed facility where Clouter lived was declared on Jan. 3. As of Wednesday, there were 20 cases in people who lived at the home, 30 cases in staff members and two deaths linked to the outbreak.
In an emailed statement to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, Shane Outridge, director of quality improvement at LaPoint Fisher, said the facility works closely with public health to "ensure initial doses and booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are administered as soon as possible to our staff and residents after becoming eligible."
Outridge said 100 per cent of staff at the facility have had two doses of the vaccine, while a majority have received a third dose.
"Among residents, we are happy to report the majority have now received their fourth dose," Outridge wrote.
Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health and CEO of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said families who move loved ones into long-term care or retirement facilities during the pandemic should talk to the administration at the facility about vaccination.
"In most cases, individuals can get vaccinated quickly through a public health clinic, their primary care provider or a participating pharmacy. When vaccination in the community isn't an option for those entering a facility, each one has policies and procedures in place to vaccinate residents," Mercer said in an emailed statement.
"Public health supports facilities with vaccine supply, training and — in some circumstances — on-site vaccinations. Public health has focused aggressively on providing vaccine and vaccination clinics and support to homes in the region throughout the pandemic."
'We had a treatment'
Lodge called into the CBC Radio program Ontario Today to share her story.
Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the University Health Network and Sinai Health System in Toronto, was the guest that day, and in response to Lodge's story, said that when someone reaches an age like 95, "every day's a gift, but this is not the way that her life needed to end."
"We had a treatment, we had a booster shot that this person wanted, that her family wanted," Sinha said.
He said the family was "doing all the right things they were supposed to do. Yet this is where our system failed."
Sinha says he raised concerns in October about third doses in long-term care homes in Toronto and the need for all residents to access them.
"I remember asking it at a meeting, 'Where we at with boosters?' and people didn't have the data. And I thought, have we been paying attention to, how do we get these doses in as soon as possible?" he said.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health has started reporting on the percentage of people who have received a third dose (booster) on its vaccination dashboard. On Wednesday, it reported 84 per cent of people 75 and older have a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Public health told CBC K-W that as of Wednesday, 96 per cent of residents in long-term care and retirement homes in Guelph, Wellington County and Dufferin County had a third dose, as did 77 per cent of staff in those facilities.
Homes expected to get residents vaccine
Mark Nesbitt, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care, said they could not comment on the specific situation involving Clouter, but "we expect long-term care homes to accommodate residents' requests to be vaccinated."
"We will continue to work with the Ministry of Health to prioritize long-term care residents, staff, and caregivers for timely access to boosters," Nesbitt said.
He noted local public health units are responsible for managing outbreak response in long-term care homes, "and we continue to encourage homes to support appropriate social opportunities for residents, even when in outbreak."
The ministry is in "regular contact with the homes to provide support when needed, and works with Ontario Health, local public health, hospitals, and community agencies to address immediate needs," said Nesbitt.
Need to advocate for seniors
Lodge puts part of the blame on the nursing home for not communicating with the family when they couldn't get Clouter a third dose.
But she also blames the long-term care system, and said she feels there was little oversight from public health or the province to ensure all homes follow the same guidelines. She wants to see change to protect residents of the facilities.
"It's frustrating that … there were limited things done between the beginning of the pandemic to now," she said, noting there have been many stories about long-term care homes being understaffed and the workers being underpaid.
"But I think we really need to learn as we move forward to make these changes and advocate for seniors and those in long-term care centres and make sure the changes do actually happen this time."
Her message to the politicians making decisions about long-term care homes is: "What if this was your mom or your grandmother?
"We need to be thinking of everybody like how we would treat our own," she said.
"My grandma was a big believer in helping those around her and it's difficult to see someone pass in this way, and we need to really overhaul these centres as well as our health-care system."