'We actually have that data right here': Massive drop in care home COVID-19 infections follows Alberta vaccination campaign

Stopping the virus: COVID-19 deaths and infection rates specifically for long-term care residents in Alberta plummeted as the vaccine boosted immunity. Data source: Alberta Health. Graph by Lori Waughtal.

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Infection rates among vulnerable care home residents who got the COVID-19 vaccine have plummeted in Alberta and at a rate that brings excitement and relief.

“It really is kind of amazing,” said infectious disease expert Lynora Saxinger Monday, after combing through Alberta Health Services’ data all weekend.

“Everyone is staring at data coming out of Israel so intently. We actually have that data right here.”

Late last week, a new study from Israel, which leads the world in vaccinations, found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine isn’t just preventing symptoms of COVID-19. It prevented nine out of 10 infections and predicted the country could reach herd immunity by next month.

Alberta is far behind Israel in vaccinating most groups. But long-term care residents started getting vaccinated in December and virtually all of them now have their second shot.

Deaths dropped off dramatically, especially from outbreaks. In February, only one person has so far died associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care setting. That compares to more than 150 people in December, said Saxinger, who is a University of Alberta professor and member of the Government of Alberta’s scientific advisory panel.


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Alberta used to see multiple outbreaks with more than 50 people testing positive at once in care homes across the province. Those issues have evaporated. The outbreaks that remain are smaller, and mostly in assisted living homes that have not yet been vaccinated.

More broadly, out of everyone who got dose two — 69,000 people — only six people have tested positive for the virus (0.01 per cent), and some of those have likely been people with previous lingering infections, she said.

Even after just one dose, the results are “very impressive,” she said. It takes three weeks to develop immunity. Out of 102,000 people who got their first shot, only 26 people have tested positive for the virus after those three weeks (0.03 per cent), and many of these people are health-care workers and residents being tested frequently.

Alberta Health also released data Monday. Specifically for long-term care — residents in public, private or non-profit care who require 24-hour nursing support — the number of active cases dropped to just 63 Saturday, down from a high of 770 on Dec. 27. There are now only two outbreaks with active cases.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is scheduled to speak to the data Monday afternoon.

Many hopes are pinned on these numbers to ease visiting restrictions. In Groundwork, an Edmonton Journal project in engagement journalism, people have written in about the burden of isolation, hoping case numbers will fall enough for health measures to loosen, worried that if some residents decline the vaccine care homes will have to keep restrictions longer.


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Vonnie Zupan raised that issue. She watches her father, Laurence Babiuk, pine for his wife of 66 years, who is cut off in a dementia care unit at Shepherd’s Care Kensington. “I think he’s only living right now to see my mom again.”

Laurence Babiuk and his daughter Vonnie Zupan talk through the window through the window with their wife and mother, a resident at Shepherd's Care Kensington. Photo by Larry Wong/PostmediaLaurence Babiuk and his daughter Vonnie Zupan talk through the window through the window with their wife and mother, a resident at Shepherd’s Care Kensington. Photo by Larry Wong/Postmedia

Through a window, Zupan can see her mom also struggling. She’s depressed, gaining weight, losing her balance more often and struggling to find words. “She doesn’t always recognize me anymore,” she said.

Her father used to go regularly, even just to cuddle quietly on her bed, she said. Then he couldn’t give her a hug or even hold her hand for 11 months. Now her mom is fully vaccinated, but they’re still waiting for the OK to re-enter. It seems like “no one is allowed to go in there ever,” she said. “It breaks my heart. He just wants to hug her.”

Saxinger says the dramatic decrease should be enough for health officials to consider carefully lifting restrictions in homes with vaccinated residents. Variant strains of COVID-19 are an issue. But so far, the variants identified in the province are ones the existing vaccine will protect against.

Her review isn’t a perfect scientific study. Case numbers in long-term care dropped at the same time numbers were dropping in the larger community, and the restrictions on visitors to care homes would have also made a difference.

“But we’re getting into this realm where the risk versus benefit equation starts to look like there’s more risk for continued isolation,” she said.


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Require masks and precautions but reopen, “as long as everyone realizes there’s no absolutes, that it’s all an odds game,” she said, stressing that families and residents should be involved in these decisions.

The current provincial health rules distinguish between essential caregivers and social visitors. Each resident is allowed up to two essential caregivers but in December, Hinshaw issued a letter asking all caregivers to limit in-person care as much as possible.

Indoor social visits are banned, whether in congregate care homes or in the community. The way the rules are implemented varies between homes and operators.



Read our Guide to the Vaccine Rollout — written from questions by people like you.

This article is part of Groundwork, the Edmonton Journal’s pilot project in engagement journalism. Sign up for the mailing list and read more about it at edmontonjournal.com/groundwork.


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