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Rural Ontario doctors await vaccine while big cities move to vaccinate LTC residents

Doctors in rural Ontario say they're still waiting to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while big cities have moved to vaccinate residents of long-term care homes after going through front-line health workers.

Doctors in rural Ontario say they're still waiting to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while big cities have moved to vaccinate residents of long-term care homes after going through front-line health workers.

Most regions placed under "green zone" restrictions in November are expected to wait until February to receive their share of the province's vaccine supply.

There might be a bias toward the province's larger, urban areas despite rural areas seeing rising COVID-19 cases as well, said an emergency room doctor in Perth, Ont.

"They seem to think that things are only happening in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal," said Dr. Alan Drummond. "But we saw COVID patients in the first wave and we are seeing COVID patients during the second wave."

Drummond, 66, said he still sees and treats COVID-19 patients despite being considered high-risk due to his heart disease and age.

"I could have stepped aside last February or March from emergency service and my colleagues recognize those in the high-risk category," he said.

"But no, it's my job. This is what I've trained my entire life to do and I wasn't going to step aside."

Drummond said small hospitals like his become immediately under threat when one emergency physician or nurse gets sick and quarantines.

"We need to make sure that emergency health-care workers are vaccinated," he said.

A group of emergency physicians on Wednesday called on the government and health authorities to provide transparency about who gets prioritized for vaccinations.

Many front-line physicians, emergency department staff and paramedics have not been vaccinated, particularly those in outlying and scarcely resourced areas, said the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.

The group said that at the same time, vaccinations are being given to urban providers with little to no direct patient contact.

"Many front-line staff have been given no indication of when they can anticipate being vaccinated, nor if it will take weeks or months, increasing their stress while they provide acute care to the population," it said in a statement.

During a news conference on Monday, Premier Doug Ford pointed to the federal government when asked about vaccine supply for rural areas in Ontario.

"Right now, we're working in collaboration with the federal government," said Ford.

Vaccination of all long-term care staff and residents in Toronto, Peel, York and Windsor-Essex is expected to be done by Jan. 21, the Health Ministry said.

The ministry said vaccination for those in long-term care homes has begun in many other parts of the province and its goal is to administer the first dose in all homes no later than Feb. 15.

Meanwhile, front-line staff at a Sarnia, Ont., hospital have been eager to know when they could receive the vaccine, said Dr. Mike Haddad, chief of staff at Bluewater Health.

"There is a bit of anxiety and there's some advocacy going on," he said. "People are not necessarily very happy."

But Haddad, a critical care doctor, said he understands that high-risk populations, like those in long-term care homes in his region, should be given priority.

Lambton County, which Sarnia is part of, is set to receive its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine during the first week of February, according to its public health unit.

"The need is very urgent here and the sooner we can get vaccines, the better," said Dr. Sudit Ranade, Lambton Public Health's medical officer of health, during a news briefing on Thursday.

The county has seen a rise in outbreaks within long-term care homes and the community in the last few weeks, said Ranade.

Haddad said the least they can do now is break the cycle of spread. 

"We can't do anything about it locally, we're just waiting for the vaccines," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press

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