Eighty-six tenants at Rebecca Towers received their first COVID-19 shot over the weekend, but advocates say Hamilton public health’s approach isn’t working for high-rise apartments with outbreaks.
Fifty-eight tenants were vaccinated at the mass clinic at FirstOntario Centre and 28 homebound residents received shots through on-site vaccinations, according to the city’s medical officer of health.
“Going forward, we’ll continue to offer designated spots if they are needed and continue to work with the building about what they need in terms of access to vaccination,” said Dr. Elizabeth Richardson during Monday’s COVID-19 media briefing.
She added that public health is also working on similar vaccination plans for The Village Apartments on Queen Street North and Wellington Place Apartments at Wellington and Cathcart Streets, both of which also have active COVID-19 outbreaks.
Details about those plans are expected to be released in the coming days.
Of the 110 cases of COVID-19 at Rebecca Towers, 14 are currently active.
The Village Apartments currently has 40 active cases of 69 confirmed cases, while Wellington Place has 25 active cases among 42 confirmed infections.
During Monday’s board of health meeting, the director of operations for Hamilton public health said not everyone they visited at Rebecca Towers opted to get the shot.
“There were challenges on-site with people who changed their mind when they were on-site, some people weren’t at home,” said Michelle Baird.
“All of this is not uncommon when we have a mobile team working with the homebound population. This is very much why what they find on-site. And so, it is a resource-intensive strategy.”
Baird said those high-rise outbreaks are examples of the “systemic gaps in health equity”, with infection prevention and control measures more difficult to maintain in high-density living spaces — especially since many of those living in those buildings are also working in settings with COVID-19 outbreaks.
“The largest proportion of our outbreak cases right now is among the warehouse distribution manufacturing sector, and this is very much where the essential workers living in these buildings are working,” said Baird.
“And because they’re relying on child care and child care settings, we’re also seeing case activity there. It’s just really impacting how COVID is being acquired among the residents here.”
A delegate speaking on behalf of the Rebecca Towers tenants’ committee at Monday’s board of health meeting said public health needs to have a more targeted approach to vaccination, pointing to ongoing concerns with the building — including the fact that there’s still only one working elevator for all 17 storeys.
Emily Power said some tenants were eager to get their vaccine, but most were reluctant about actually leaving their units to travel to the downtown clinic.
“Many people really were hesitant to enter the hallway, go down the stairwell or ride the elevator all at the same time as their other neighbours and then ride the school bus to the clinic … and then back again,” said Power.
“Even if they hadn’t tested positive for COVID previously, the simple act of going to get vaccinated might result in them contracting the virus. So people were very, very scared to do that.”
She said the Rebecca Towers tenants’ committee knowledge of the building’s residents and ability to get in touch with those living in the high-rise means that more people were aware of the vaccination opportunities, and said not every apartment building Hamilton has that kind of coordinated effort.
“My fear is that if a similar piecemeal vaccination approach — the combination of the mass clinic and the on-site — is is repeated at other buildings where tenants are more isolated, it could be more of a disaster.”
Despite Power and the tenants’ committee’s calls for public health to vaccinate more residents directly at the building, public health has not indicated that will be part of the plan for the other two downtown apartment buildings with outbreaks.
Dr. Richardson said the 28 “homebound” people who were vaccinated at Rebecca Towers over the weekend may have qualified for on-site vaccinations by needing to self-isolate or quarantine, but said the city is primarily looking at getting people to go to the vaccination clinics to get their shots.