How one east Toronto hospital managed to get the first COVID vaccines out ahead of schedule

With the Ontario government under pressure to get needles into arms faster, one east Toronto hospital has managed to get out the first shots to all eligible residents across the 22 long-term-care and priority retirement homes it supports.

And they hope that other sites can learn from what they did right.

Inside St. Clair O’Connor Community Long-Term Care Home on Wednesday, 84-year-old resident John Coburn flashed a thumbs-up as he rolled up his sleeve, along with his wife Beverly, 90.

John said he never expected to make history being among the first to get the vaccine in a world-wide pandemic. But his grandfather, of the same name, played his own part in the 1918 flu.

A minister in Midland, Ont., at the time, he did “triage” and would “go around and take temperatures and do the simple things so the doctor could concentrate on what’s important,” John said.

Beverly added that she had “not the slightest bit of hesitation” to get the vaccine.

“It’s pretty ridiculous not to get it when you can,” she said.

Teams from Michael Garron Hospital, working in partnership with Toronto Public Health, the University Health Network and the East Toronto Family Practice network, have administered over 2,500 vaccines to residents over four days. Out of 3,139 total residents, that’s about 80 per cent. Those with COVID-19 are not eligible for the vaccine, and no one was forced to get it.

On top of that, about 1,300 staff members from long-term-care and retirement homes have been vaccinated at the hospital’s clinic since Dec. 22, according to the hospital’s communications team.

Sarah Downey, president and CEO of Michael Garron, said they started planning even before the Moderna vaccine was approved, weeks ago, getting staff teams in place and consent forms in advance from residents.

This took some time as not everyone was able to give consent for themselves, but she said it was a key lesson.

“Every minute, we really felt, that they weren’t getting the vaccine in their arm was another minute that their lives were at risk,” she said.

“Identify your people, have a game plan, work out your logistics and distribution,” she recommends, noting it just takes a few seconds to give the shots but residents need to be watched for 15 minutes after, and this takes some planning.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who appeared at the home to mark the milestone, thanked the Coburns for “lighting the path.” He said the vaccine is “the only bright light that exists” in the fight against the disease, comparing that battle to the Second World War.

“It is the seminal moment of our generation, when we’re 96 years old this is what we’re going to remember,” he told reporters.

Asked about criticism that the rollout has been slow so far, he said officials are moving as fast as they can and “will run out of vaccines this coming week."

The province has promised that all residents, staff and essential caregivers at long-term-care homes in hot zones of Toronto, York, Peel and Windsor-Essex will have their first shots by Jan. 21. Hillier said they’re “going to beat that challenge date” by a couple of days.

The vaccines coming in are “increasingly being taken by the second shots that are needed to complete the vaccination program and therefore we have a smaller bubble at the top where we have vaccines to start the new programs,” he added.

According to independent website, COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, Ontario has delivered over 60,000 doses, roughly 40 per cent of what it has received. That puts the province behind Alberta, B.C., Quebec and P.E.I. but ahead of the rest of the provinces and territories. The Canadian average is 41 per cent.

The province has been promising to ramp up the rollout, and did 10,000 shots Tuesday for the first day, Hillier added.

He did not have a date for when residents at other long-term-care homes across the province could expect their vaccines, because, he said, he does not know when more vaccines will arrive.

Other hospitals are also working to vaccinate as many residents as possible, with the Moderna vaccine, which doesn’t require the same deep freeze as the Pfizer shot, and can be brought into long-term care homes.

University Health Network is supporting 15 homes, said spokesperson Gillian Howard in an email, and by end of day Wednesday will have administered 6,050 first-shot vaccines.

“But our vaccine teams have been going to many homes that we aren’t partnered with,” she said.

“We are now being shadowed by teams from Women’s College and North York General who come with us for a home and then go out to the next home on their list. We working to increase the number of teams.”

Jeff Powis, medical director of infection prevention and control at Michael Garron, said relationships built while helping manage outbreaks during the first wave were key.

St. Clair O’Connor Community was hard hit during the spring, and lost over half a dozen residents. While the first dose of vaccine isn’t enough for full protection — the second shot is scheduled for 28 days later — he said it leaves the residents much better off than they were before.

According to data released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with just one dose Moderna is about 80 per cent effective, although it’s recommended that everyone get two shots.

Now, after “endless hours and sleepless nights thinking about how to keep people safe,” Powis finally has a tool to do it.

“The analogy I have is Muhammad Ali and feeling like I’ve just been doing a rope-a-dope for nine rounds, and finally I can start swinging back,” he said.

See the photos here

May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11


How one east Toronto hospital managed to get the first COVID vaccines out ahead of schedule