TORONTO -- As the province continues to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to long-term care residents and staff, there are concerns that other vulnerable residents in congregate care settings and the workers who care for them are being forgotten.

Under the province’s framework for the vaccine rollout, group homes are included in the second phase, but the executive director of Participation House in Markham argues their facilities should be included in the first phase.

“We serve some of the most at-risk, vulnerable individuals in society, with our population largely comprised of high-risk seniors with serious disabilities, resulting in extremely high personal and medical care needs 24/7,” Shelley Brillinger told CTV News Toronto.

“COVID-19 poses an incredible ongoing threat to the health and well-being of our residents and clients, who share all of the risk factors identified for those living in LTC.”

Participation House experienced a deadly outbreak at its Markham group home during the first wave of the pandemic, resulting in six deaths and nearly every resident being infected with the virus.

“With new viral variants, the prospects of new outbreak events is all too real,” Brillinger said. “Our dedicated staff, who provide care for our residents and clients should be vaccinated, as indicated in Phase 1, to ensure their health and prevent any unwanted spread from the community into our vulnerable congregate settings.”

With confirmation of variants of the virus in Ontario, the wait for the vaccine is worrisome for Leea Nutson, whose 40 year-old daughter Berge lives at Participation House group home.

“This particular sector of society is always overlooked, so is their life less valuable less viable because they are disabled,” Nutson said.

Leea Nutson and her daughter Bergen

The group home Bergen has lived at for 12 years experienced an outbreak in November, but fortunately Bergen did not test positive.

Nutson believes vulnerable residents like her daughter should be included in the first phase.

“The virus is spreading in congregate care settings.”

The Ministry of Health says “due to limited supply, the province initially focused on vaccinating those who are at highest risk, including long-term care and retirement home residents and the staff who provide care to these groups.”

Complicating matters is the current delay of the Pfizer vaccine as the company has been upgrading its manufacturing plant in Europe.

“In response to the significant reduction in allocations by the federal government as well as significant uncertainty regarding future shipments, the province and vaccination sites have worked together to develop a plan to accelerate vaccination of the province’s most vulnerable and continue to administer second doses based on availability of supply provided by the federal government,” a ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

York Region Public Health had planned to start rolling out the vaccine to congregate care settings including Participation House, on Jan.20 after immunizing long-term care residents and staff. However, that plan was halted due to the vaccine shortage and direction from the province with long-term care remaining the priority.

“The province has have to have some line of sight on any potential vaccine doses that it can reallocate to health units where they have insufficient doses,” said Dr. Karim Kurji, York Region’s medical officer of health. “When vaccine supplies get restricted and many health units haven't immunized all their long term care residents we have to with other health units.”

COVID-19 vaccine

York Region Public Health continues to work on a plan to rollout the vaccine to congregate care settings, but Dr. Kurji says that will depend on shipments and supply and may not be available until late February or March.

“I don't see any great movement occurring until after the province gets some reassurance the Pfizer supplies they are now being promised in mid February will be here,” Dr. Kurji said. “ It is our intention at the earliest opportunity to immunize the congregate settings that are high risk.”