Vaccinations in long-term care homes biggest source of optimism: Former long-term care minister
Canada’s health-care system, long a source of national pride for being more equitable than the U.S., has struggled so hard to deliver COVID vaccines that some of its citizens are heading to Florida to get their jab.
At Century Village East, a retirement community in Deerfield Beach packed with Canadian residents, medics vaccinated 4,000 people over eight days this month. Therese Gagnon, a retired school teacher from Quebec, and her husband got theirs Thursday morning in Fort Lauderdale. Like other Canadians, she took advantage of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s policy of vaccinating anyone 65 or older -- regardless of their nationality or where they live.
“Canadian authorities should come see how it is so efficiently administered,” said Gagnon, 70, who spends four months a year at a second home in Pompano Beach to escape her country’s frigid winter.
Getting the vaccine in people’s arms has been a central challenge for governments around the world, but Canada’s had it especially tough. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines for ordering four times what the Canadian population required, but the bulk are vaccines the country hasn’t approved yet. The rollout also was stymied by challenges of distributing doses across the vast expanses of the world’s second-largest country.
About 1 in 100 Canadians have been vaccinated, a third the rate in the U.S. and a quarter of the U.K’s, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. That has made Florida’s vaccine program a magnet for Canadian retirees, known as snowbirds, who spend the winter in the state. Facebook groups for Canadians -- like the 20,000-member Les Snowbirds Québécois en Floride, or Snowbirds from Quebec in Florida -- have been abuzz with tips and testimonials from people getting the vaccine.
The biggest challenge has been snaring an appointment from locally run vaccination programs plagued by demand-driven technical problems. There’s no official count of Canadians vaccinated in Florida, but about 29,000 nonresidents had been vaccinated in the state through Wednesday, or 3.8 per cent of the total.
Janelle Marquis, a retired nurse from Montreal who has a winter home in Hallandale Beach, is waiting for an appointment to get her shot. She wasn’t sure when the vaccine would be available to her in Canada.
“I think it is a very good thing,” Marquis, 70, said in a text message. “I am a clinical nurse, and I have devoted my life to giving vaccines.”
In Canada, the first batch of 30,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses arrived in Montreal on Dec. 13. Early confusion about transportation protocols led to delays, as did a decision in Ontario, the country’s most populous province, to close vaccination clinics over the Christmas holidays, citing staffing shortages.
Canada’s socialized medicine means the vaccine will be free to all, but it will be distributed first to those most at risk. Information about which groups will receive their shots when has been patchy. Front-line workers and elderly residents of long-term care facilities are first in line, but beyond that, there are more questions than answers -- and signs the normally compliant nation is losing patience.
News of a pilot program that pushed some prisons to the top of vaccine distribution lists sparked outrage, even as health officials said the move was justified. And Ontario’s finance minister was forced to resign after taking vacation in Saint Barthelemy in defiance of government pleas to avoid all nonessential travel.
Gagnon said she was amazed at how easy the process was in the U.S. She and her husband simply drove to a park in Fort Lauderdale, where the county has a drive-through vaccination center, and they didn’t need an appointment. All they had to do was sign a medical consent form and show proof they were over 65 years old. No one asked whether they were Florida residents.
“No proof necessary, just proof of age, which is great since we live here part of the year and we could infect our neighbors and friends,” she said via text messages. “The governor made a very wise decision. We have friends who were hesitating in coming to their vacation home this year and have finally decided to come down.”
DeSantis made Florida one of the first states to offer vaccines to anyone over 65, and hospitals and health departments rushed to set up appointment systems and vaccination sites. Massive demand collapsed websites and jammed phone lines.
From the start, the state didn’t require year-round residency, and DeSantis made it clear that snowbirds are welcome. “It’s not like they are just vacationing for two weeks -- you’ll have people who are here four to five months a year,” he said at a Jan. 4 news conference. “That’s a little different from someone who’s doing tourism and coming here.”
Century Village East, the development swarming with Canadians, set up a vaccination program just for residents in early January, with its own online reservation system. The health department sent medical personnel to vaccinate 500 people a day.
“There was no distinction made between nationality or citizenship,” said Elliot Cohen, a manager at the complex who helped organize the program. Facebook posts from French Canadian residents described how happy they were to get a vaccine that was unavailable when they left home for Florida.
Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist, said vaccinating part-time residents is a good idea from a public-health perspective, because it helps reduce the spread of COVID through the community. Cohen agreed: “Whether you are American or Canadian, as long as you are here, you have the risk of getting and transmitting the virus.”