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COVID-19: CanAge report on vaccinating seniors gives Canada a failing grade

Report aims to bring attention to gaps in vaccine uptake against influenza, shingles and pneumonia, calls for national vaccine strategy
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While the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out continues in the province for our most vulnerable, a recent report from Canada’s national senior’s advocacy organization, CanAge, has scored each individual province on its immunization efforts in protecting the health and safety of older adults. Aiming to bring attention to critical gaps in vaccine uptake against the most common infectious illnesses in older adults, the report found the average score across the country to be a D-, sounding the alarm against “preventable hospitalizations and deaths in older adults”.

Laura Tamblyn Watts is the CEO of CanAge and said current levels of vaccine adoption in our nation’s seniors outside of COVID-19 is “nowhere near” where it needs to be to keep seniors safe. Speaking to national statistics, Tamblyn Watts said we should have anywhere between 80 to 90 per cent of seniors vaccinated for illnesses like influenza, pneumonia and shingles. Right now, that percentage sits around ten per cent.

“The reason is not a good one – we do not prioritize seniors for adult vaccinations the way we do with children, yet seniors are by nature immune supressed and immune compromised.” Said Tamblyn Watts. “We have very specifically formulated vaccines for things like pneumonia, shingles and influenza, but we don’t fund it the way we need to – and where we do fund it, it can be hard to get a hold of.”

Looking at the provincial breakdown, Tamblyn Watts said Ontario presents a sort of “good news, bad news story” in that the province is tied with Prince Edward Island for the top marks in the country – though that mark is only a B-. Tamblyn Watts said Ontario does a fairly good job in funding, being one of the two provinces that funds specifically formulated influenza vaccines for all seniors, as well as shingles vaccines for individuals between 65-70 years of age.

“In terms of access to these vaccines, they got an F.” said Tamblyn Watts. “While you may be able to get it covered in Ontario, actually getting these vaccines into your arm is really hard.”

While the funding may exist, Tamblyn Watts said the difficulties can be traced to issues in availability, as she said what needs to be done is to allow these vaccines to be administered in more locations. While pharmacies have only recently been allowed to give specifically formulated senior influenza vaccines this year, Tamblyn Watts said all the vaccines need to be provided wherever they can be – including pharmacies, home care and public health sites.

Tamblyn Watts adds that Ontario has been particularly confusing in providing information on any of its adult vaccinations, doing a poor job in telling people where they can be vaccinated and what vaccines they’re supposed to have. While information is available online, Tamblyn Watts said the province does a poor job in mobilizing that information to the community.

“The system change that’s needed on this is actually fairly easy – we’ve seen it work during the COVID-19 era.” Said Tamblyn Watts. “Canada needs to have a vaccination strategy – and we’ve seen the problem of not having one this year.”

The CanAge CEO said Canada’s current system of vaccine distribution creates inconsistency and barriers, as responsibility for vaccine supply is downloaded to individual provinces, who then pass on responsibility to “financially strapped” public health agencies. Tamblyn Watts said Canada should instead be purchasing singles, influenza and pneumonia vaccines at the federal level, giving supply to provinces for distribution.

“If the federal government purchased all the vaccines needed for seniors to keep them healthy and well, it’d still only be one point five per cent of the drug budget across this country.”

When asked for her impressions on how to make information on the other vaccines seniors need more widely available, Tamblyn Watts said what’s already been proven to work is establishing online and phone sign up systems for seniors to book appointments.

“The next steps really involve a system change between the federal government and provinces – in that the provinces should actually just be involved in distribution, and the federal government should be involved in purchasing.”