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'Maddening': Faster Ontario Vaccine Rollout May Have Saved These Lives

George McMahon and Alphonse Dorval are two of the thousands of Ontarians who died late in the second wave.
George Arthur McMahon Sr., a great-great-grandfather and former university professor, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 13.
George Arthur McMahon Sr., a great-great-grandfather and former university professor, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 13.

Ian McMahon and his 10 siblings felt terrified as they watched the first wave of COVID-19 devastate nursing homes across Ontario in spring 2020. But no one got infected at the Windsor, Ont. home where their father, George Arthur McMahon Sr., lived.

They celebrated George’s 87th birthday in September with an outdoor party at his nursing home. George — who was also a grandfather to more than 25, great-grandfather to 12 and great-great-grandfather to two — had to stay behind a fence, but he got to see his family.

“And then the second wave hit,” McMahon told HuffPost Canada. “And the panic struck in.”

On Dec. 8, an outbreak was declared at George’s home, The Village at St. Clair. A handful of cases were reported at first. A week later, 38 residents and 20 health-care workers had tested positive. The week after that, there were 94 residents and 29 staff infected with the virus.

Earlier: Daughter describes losing mother to COVID-19 in an Ontario nursing home. Story continues after video.

McMahon still felt his dad was one of the lucky ones, because he lived in an area of the Village where there weren’t any cases. But the virus kept spreading.

On Jan. 8, two days before George was scheduled for vaccination, he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He died on Jan. 13.

“He was almost there … He was on the cusp of making it,” McMahon said. “It just goes to show you, it doesn’t take much for a whole family to be destroyed … It takes one lapse.”

George was the last patriarch of his generation in the family, born to parents that came to Canada from Scotland, McMahon said. He was deeply involved with the University of Windsor, according to an obituary, teaching history, mentoring students and serving in multiple executive roles. One of his proudest moments was carrying the Olympic flame as a torchbearer in the 2010 Winter Olympics torch relay, which he said made him feel like a “rock star.”

“He led a fantastic, awesome life. And to go out like that was maddening.”

- Ian McMahon

A devout Catholic, George’s family said in the obituary that they have no doubt the words, “‘Well done good and faithful servant!’ (Matthew 25:23),” welcomed him into heaven.

“My dad did not deserve to go out that way,” McMahon told HuffPost. “He led a fantastic, awesome life. And to go out like that was maddening.”

Sixty-five per cent of The Village at St. Clair’s residents have now had at least one dose of the Moderna vaccine, a spokesperson for parent company Schlegel Villages told HuffPost by email. “The Village is working with Public Health to schedule another clinic to inoculate residents who were not able to receive the vaccination because they were recovering from COVID-19. More than 180 team members at the Village St. Clair have also been vaccinated.”

McMahon said he wishes this happened sooner. He’s furious at the Ontario government for its response to the pandemic in long-term care, especially for taking a break from vaccinations on Christmas and Boxing Day. McMahon said he can’t help but wonder if they hadn’t slowed down over the holidays, maybe his father could’ve been vaccinated sooner.

Officials have apologized for the slowdown over Christmas, but experts and families say that was only one of the many problems with Ontario’s vaccine rollout in long-term care, which has lagged behind other countries and provinces.

Immunity doesn’t kick in right away when a person is vaccinated, so it is possible that someone who received their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine could get sick days later.

Spokespeople for the Ministry of Health and Minister Christine Elliott did not respond to HuffPost’s emailed questions by deadline. The government has defended its rollout, with Premier Doug Ford regularly touting that Ontario has given out more doses than any other province in Canada.

Dr. Samir Sinha speaks with the former minister of health in this 2012 photo.
Dr. Samir Sinha speaks with the former minister of health in this 2012 photo.

Dr. Samir Sinha says that the rollout to long-term care residents took too long. He’s the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and director of health policy research at Ryerson University’s National Institute on Aging.

“Ontario took a very different approach and a pace towards vaccinating this population, which, frankly, has just cost unnecessary lives,” he told HuffPost.

West Virginia finished giving first doses to nursing home residents on Dec. 30, Dr. Sinha told HuffPost, while Israel finished Jan. 7 and Denmark did on Jan. 8.

Ontario had enough Pfizer vaccines to inoculate all long-term care residents by Dec. 21, the doctor said. But the province did all the vaccinations at hospitals at first, because the vials must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. It didn’t actually start moving the vaccines to long-term care homes until Jan. 5.

Quebec, on the other hand, made long-term care homes the vaccine distribution hubs, instead of hospitals. And British Columbia started moving Pfizer doses into nursing homes Dec. 23, Dr. Sinha said.

Those provinces are now seeing fewer COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes than Ontario is. The number of active cases among nursing home residents and staff has dropped dramatically since January. But there are still outbreaks in 94 of Ontario’s homes as of Friday, which is 15 per cent of all homes.

The number of active COVID-19 cases among residents and staff of long-term care homes has dropped dramatically.
The number of active COVID-19 cases among residents and staff of long-term care homes has dropped dramatically.

Dr. Sinha said the province could have vaccinated everyone in long-term care and retirement homes in a two to three week period.

“We actually know where all these people live. They’re not really running around the community or down in St. Barts, you know, on holiday.

Dr. Sinha also took issue with the province’s strategy to start vaccinations only in the COVID-19 “hot spots” of Toronto, York, Peel and Windsor-Essex. At the time, there were outbreaks in long-term care homes in almost every public health region in the province, he said.

Melissa Caron of Ottawa wonders if a different strategy could’ve saved one of her relatives in Kapuskasing, Ont., a small town of 8,200 people northwest of Timmins.

Three of her grandparents were living at Extendicare Kapuskasing when an outbreak was declared at the home. All three of them got COVID-19 and one of her grandfathers, Alphonse Dorval, passed away on Feb. 2. He was 91.

Alphonse Dorval and his wife Florence are seen in a photo taken before they moved to Extendicare Kapuskasing.
Alphonse Dorval and his wife Florence are seen in a photo taken before they moved to Extendicare Kapuskasing.

Dorval, a Quebecker who moved to Ontario to work in the forestry industry, had seven children, 15 grandchildren, and so many great-grandchildren Caron couldn’t count them all.

“Any baby would just put a smile on his face,” she said.

Before he moved to Extendicare, Dorval enjoyed tending to his tomato plants and the “phenomenal” garden at his Remi Lake cottage.

“He did that till the very end.”

Other than people living in remote First Nations communities, no one in northern Ontario had been vaccinated when the virus hit Extendicare Kapuskasing on Jan. 6, Caron said.

“It seems like northern Ontario, as a whole, has been totally forgotten in vaccination.”

Kapuskasing’s mayor wrote to Premier Ford and Health Minister Elliott requesting vaccines in mid-February. He said he wanted to avoid another devastating outbreak like the one that killed Dorval and 15 others at Extendicare.

“It seems like northern Ontario, as a whole, has been totally forgotten in vaccination.”

- Melissa Caron

“Almost a quarter of our population is over 65,” Mayor Dave Plourde said at the time. “The next rollout has to start here, not finish here.”

A spokesperson for Extendicare said by email that 32 of the home’s residents have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The home will continue holding clinics for eligible residents and staff, the statement said.

“We’re pleased that access to the vaccine for our residents continues to progress. It’s a huge milestone our community has been looking forward to for months.”

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