Long-term-care workers face barriers to vaccine access, union says

·3 min read

A union representing health-care workers in long-term care is calling on the province to make vaccines more accessible — just as the province scales back on vaccinations due to a pause in production.

SEIU Healthcare wrote to the province asking for paid sick leave for all staff in long-term-care homes and hospitals in order to remove “barriers” to getting vaccines. The union has members working in Hamilton homes such as Grace Villa and Shalom Village — both with large ongoing COVID outbreaks.

“We’ve been advocating for paid leave in support of vaccination from the time to consult with a physician, to the time and cost related to travel and transportation, to paid sick days that may be required if someone experiences adverse side effects,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare in an emailed statement. She noted members raised concerns about scheduling, where workers don’t often know when and where they’ll be vaccinated far enough in advance.

Language is also a hurdle.

“Many long-term-care staff are new Canadians whose first language may be neither English nor French,” Stewart said. “We’re asking for more multilingual communications about the process to establish confidence in the rollout.”

Meanwhile, as of Jan. 18, the province says only residents, staff and caregivers at long-term-care homes and “high risk” retirement homes will be eligible to receive the vaccine, as Pfizer pauses work at its Belgium facility to prepare for increased production in future weeks.

That means retirement homes not deemed high risk — which were next in line for vaccines — will have to wait.

Anyone who already received their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is expected to get their second dose on time, though Hamilton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, said Monday that public health is “continuing to work with the province ... to ensure that happens.”

The city has administered 13,400 doses so far and aims to wrap up its first phase of vaccine rollout by Wednesday. In an email Monday, the city said there are about 700 eligible workers left to be vaccinated.

The news comes the day a new death was reported at Grace Villa, Hamilton’s worst outbreak which has now seen 44 deaths since Nov. 25. Two new resident cases each were reported at Shalom Village (specifically in long-term care), Macassa Lodge and the Cardinal Retirement Residence.

Richardson said she’s happy with vaccine uptake so far in long-term-care and retirement home workers.

“We were up over 65 per cent vaccine coverage as of the end of last week,” she said. “We’re moving forward quite well.”

Richardson said public health has asked homes to work with their staff to schedule their vaccines, but acknowledged language barriers persist and said there’s ongoing translation work to address them.

“It’s been a little slower than we would’ve liked on that front,” Richardson said. “That’s absolutely something that we need.”

Stewart said the work should happen “immediately.”

“Front-line workers have given everything to their communities through this battle with COVID-19. Many have gotten sick. Some have lost their lives,” she said. “We owe it to these workers ... to ensure that vaccines are available and that the barriers that could imperil the vaccination effort are eliminated.”

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator