He’s 101, she’s 92. But this couple at an Ontario seniors’ home isn’t a priority for the COVID-19 vaccine

Families have learned that where their loved ones live in the Copernicus Lodge seniors’ home will determine whether or not they’re eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine right now.

Residents in one of the home’s senior apartment units, Tony Morawski, 101, and his 92-year-old wife, Jean, have lived at the facility for three years and have managed to fend off COVID-19 so far. 

Desperate to keep it that way, their family was holding out hope that they would be vaccinated as soon as possible in the home, located in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end.

But now they’ve learned those living in the home’s apartment units will not get the shot at the same time as residents living in the long-term care facilities located in the same building. 

‘Sitting ducks’

“We know that those residents are sitting ducks,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Health told CBC News.

Copernicus Lodge, located in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood, offers a long-term care or nursing home setting along with senior apartments. The nursing-home side is facing an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, with 47 residents infected.

But senior apartments that share the same space as long-term care facilities often share staff as well, Sinha points out. Plus, many residents of those apartments, like Morawski and his wife, are at advanced ages, meaning they face a heightened threat of catching and dying of COVID-19.

“We have enough vaccine to get all these people done. Why we’re actually picking and choosing and putting people at risk doesn’t make any sense to me,” Sinha said, adding it’s unacceptable that those living in seniors’ apartments are being forced to wait for the vaccine.

Paramedics transport 101-year-old Tony Morawski, a Copernicus Lodge resident, on Jan. 5, 2021. He is not suspected of having COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Senior apartments residents not in ‘priority group’

In a statement to CBC News, Unity Health, the organization overseeing the home’s vaccine rollout, said that while the long-term care facilities fall into the priority group for vaccination identified by Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Toronto Public Health, its apartments do not. 

“Copernicus Lodge Long-Term Care Home is in the priority group for vaccination. The apartments as yet do not fall into the criteria,” Unity Health spokesperson Jennifer Stranges said in part. 

“The prioritization of who receives the vaccination and when is determined by the Ministry.”

CBC News asked the provincial health ministry why it was making residents in long-term care a priority for vaccination but not occupants of seniors’ apartments. The ministry did not provide a response in time for publication.

Dr. Jenny Clement, a family physician at Copernicus Lodge, told CBC News in an interview that none of the lodge’s residents have been vaccinated yet. The facility is still trying to get all of the necessary permissions since many of the residents have dementia, she said. 

‘A stepwise process’

Clement did confirm the ministry instructed the home to start with long-term care residents only. The hope, she said, is to begin vaccinating residents this week. 

“One of the things that’s challenging about this is that we have to have a stepwise process, right? I certainly feel for the families who want their loved ones vaccinated,” Clement said.

A resident looks out a window at Copernicus Lodge, in Toronto, on Jan. 5, 2021. The not-for-profit facility, which includes seniors’ apartments and long-term care beds, declared its first outbreak of COVID-19 last month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As if his family needed a reminder of the risks to his health, Morawski was rushed to hospital Tuesday — for a different health concern. The centenarian is not suspected of having the novel coronavirus.

But the scare is another sign of just how vulnerable residents living in long-term care are when it comes to COVID-19.

“When we actually have vaccines that are literally sitting in freezers, my view is that if there’s any older person in a congregate setting, get them vaccinated, ASAP,” said Sinha.

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