“I would like to be a free man,” Meister said. “I would like to be a man who can move and see his family… I only see the house, I only see the inside of the house.” Meister still lives in the house he bought with his wife in the 1980s in North York, Ontario. She passed away years ago and he now lives with her caregiver, Marizel Evangelista. None of them were able to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Meister has only left home once since March, for a dentist appointment. Evangelista only leaves sporadically when groceries cannot be delivered and has not been home with her family for almost a year.
They were effectively hiding from a virus that would certainly threaten Meister’s life if exposed without vaccination.
“I am 98 years old, how long should I wait? Meister asked.
“I feel locked in the house, like I’m a criminal – I’m locked in a prison. ”
The first phase of Ontario’s immunization plan included seniors in long-term care homes, but not those living in the community at large. If Meister lived in another province, he could have been vaccinated now, but Ontario considered older people living in the community a lower priority than essential workers – that is, until the province changed course last week.
Now Ontario says people aged 80 and over will be vaccinated next, before essential workers, but the wait will still be at least a few weeks.
WATCH | Sam Meister describes how the danger of contracting COVID-19 cut him off from those close to him and from the rest of society:
For some, it’s still too long to delay shooting for such a high-risk group.
Meister’s doctor, Samir Sinha, is director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and University Health Network. He has pleaded for the Ontario government to change course and he is grateful for that, but adds that seniors living in their homes should have been closer to the starting line for vaccinations all along.
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, and it’s frankly long overdue,” said Dr Sinha.
“Age is the biggest risk factor for getting sick and dying from COVID-19, so this needs to be taken into account when administering vaccines. ”
This is a situation that has not been a problem in other provinces, most of which follow the recommendation of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. This federal group sets best practices and says people over the age of 70 (not 80, as in Ontario) should be vaccinated next.
In Quebec, the elders of the community have already started to be vaccinated. Seniors in British Columbia are all expected to have their two shots by the end of April.
Sinha estimates that approximately 120,000 seniors in Ontario long-term care homes have been vaccinated so far. Under Ontario’s current plan, immunizations for people over 80 in the general community will begin in March. Depending on the offer, some estimate it could take until july vaccinate this age group.
Sinha says Ontario should follow the recommendation of the National Advisory Committee. He also believes that the elderly in the community should have been prioritized before even healthcare professionals like him, who are much less likely to die from the virus.
“My chance of dying from COVID-19 is less than 1%, Sam’s is 25%,” Sinha said. “So if there was a vaccine, where do you go and do you have the greatest impact? People like Sam. That’s exactly what science says you should do. ”
In Ontario, 96% of deaths from COVID-19 have been in people over 60, and 93% of the province’s seniors live at home. Sinha says that if Ontario had decided to make immunization for all seniors a priority, it could have saved lives.
Despite the long wait for the vaccine, Meister is still one of the lucky ones. Her caregiver lives with him and, out of health care, she has not returned home with her family since the pandemic was declared. She calls them on Zoom every night over dinner, and even celebrated Christmas on Zoom with them, but the toll has been heavy for her.
“I can’t hug them, we only talk through the window. It’s very difficult, ”said Evangelista.
“If he could get the vaccine, it’s good for me too because I can see my family,” she added.
Olga Libaque is 90 years old and lives alone in Toronto, but unlike Meister, she relies on personal support workers to come to her apartment several times a week to help take care of him. It is not always the same person. They often go house to house caring for the elderly, and many of them are not yet vaccinated.
This is a situation that greatly worries Libaque’s son.
“We are helpless. We try to help him, but without having enough information about the [provincial vaccination] plan, there isn’t much more we can do to help or tell him, ”said Jaime Libaque.
Now he knows his mother will receive the vaccine, but Libaque says he still has no idea when that will actually be the case.
Currently, he visits his mother several times a week and acts as his family’s primary caregiver. He is worried that he has yet to qualify for the vaccine himself and whether he will pose a risk to his mother once she is vaccinated and that he will not.
“I think caregivers should also be vaccinated earlier, because if something happens to me, how can I take care of it? He asked.
This is a concern that others have also highlighted. Married couples in Ontario, where one person is over 80 and the other below, also pose a puzzle, as do cases where a senior is caring for a much older senior relative.
Rick Hillier, chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, said last week that a website and telephone hotline will be available in early March where older people can make an appointment to be vaccinated near their homes. There are approximately 500,000 people over the age of 80 living in the Ontario community, and the province hopes to vaccinate at least 100,000 people in March.
The province said the logistics of how these seniors will be vaccinated is still under development, but that some seniors could expect to hear from their primary care physicians in early March.
Sinha is worried that part of the plan will involve communicating via the Internet. “Many seniors are unfamiliar with the Internet, or do not have computers or English as their mother tongue, and many are homebound. So what will be the plan to make sure they are not left behind? ”
Sinha points out that in the case of annual flu vaccination campaigns, the province relies on paramedics to reach seniors who cannot leave their homes. He hopes similar strategies will be considered for the COVID-19 shootings.
Libaque is worried about the impact all of this uncertainty could have on her mother, even though the wait for her vaccination is only a few weeks longer.
“Along with worry, there are things that could come with it – depression and mental health – and we need to be a lot more aware and available to it,” he said.
WATCH | Jaime Libaque describes the consequences of the uncertainty surrounding the rollout of immunization in Ontario for his mother and family:
For her part, Olga tries to stay as busy as possible. She watches the news a lot, but she also tries to distract herself from the wait by exercising, calling her children and grandchildren every day, and praying.
Yet the anxiety creeps in despite his best efforts.
“I am scared. I can’t see my children and grandchildren who I usually saw every week, but not at the moment, ”she says. “I feel bad, sad – maybe that’s why sometimes I can’t sleep. ”
As for Sam Meister, he says he can’t wait to get the shot. He too can’t wait to put the past year behind him and start seeing his family again.
When asked what he missed most, Meister replied, “Everything – family, even air, like a free man. Like that, I feel like a closed person. ”
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