NORTH BAY -- COVID-19 vaccinations have started to roll out in LTC homes across the region and although its a big step for residents in these facilities, experts say that “vaccine hesitancy” is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“This is a very new experience,” said Dr. Janet McElhaney, Scientific Director at Health Sciences North Research Institute and Professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

“We’re used to rolling out influenza vaccines into long-term care and have hugely successful vaccination rates among both the residents and the health care workers in those settings.”

“But as we’re rolling [COVID-19 vaccinations] out in real time, we have to address the issues, particularly around vaccine hesitancy and be able to incorporate that into the whole process of people consenting to get the vaccine and in order to improve uptake.”

Dr. McElhaney is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to help develop a “vaccine delivery process.”

The hope is that with more information and an overall better vaccination experience, more people will be willing to get vaccinated.

“As we’re rolling out now our priority in Ontario is to get all of the residents in long-term care to be vaccinated. This has been well receive and I think we’re going to have significant success at getting those to the 80 per cent targets for the residents in long-term care,” she said.

However, the hesitancy isn’t really being seen by the residents.

Adding that, “what is more of a challenge is the health care workers where across Canada, some of the vaccination rates of health care workers can be as low as between 30 and 50 per cent.”

This is a similar trend seen at long-term care homes in the Timiskaming Health Unit district, which administrated its first COVID-19 vaccination on Tuesday to a married couple at Extendicare in Haileybury.

“We know the elderly population in general do not have a lot of vaccine hesitancy,” said Dr. Glenn Corneil the acting Medical Officer of Health.

“They’ve lived through a lot of the illnesses that vaccines address, whether it’s polio or their children getting measles.”

“So in general, it is a population that has seen and lived first hand the benefits of vaccination, which are very, very clearly documented,” he adds.

To date 90 to 95 per cent of residents in long-term care homes in the Timiskaming Health Unit district have received their first dose of the vaccine. However, the health unit only received enough to vaccine residents, not staff.

“That’s the question of the day for sure,” he said when asked about when staff might be able to receive their vaccinations. “That’s contingent on what the country and the province gets. Our job as a health unit is to be ready and we are very ready.”

According to Dr. McElhaney, right now the vaccination process involves what is called a CARD approach. It stands for comfort, ask, relax and distract, to help make people feel more comfortable during their experience.

“[It] starts with comfort. So ‘what more things can we do to improve your vaccination experience?’ That may be things like calming things that you know are helpful to you, or what kinds of questions you have so that comes to the next part of this, which is the ask part,” she explained.

Topic anesthetic creams or Tylenol could also be offered to help make it less painful and having someone there to support you could also be an option.

Dr. McElhaney says that the quality improvement project is really to help make people feel more comfortable with this new vaccination so that the provincial target of getting 80 per cent of people vaccinated can be reached.

“What we’re trying to incorporate into the project is to try and fill that gap between high influenza vaccination rates among health care workers and what more do they need to know on a one-on-one bases that will help them to over come their hesitancy on getting this vaccine,” she said.

During this project, Dr. McElhaney is working at different locations in Sudbury at St. Josephs Health Care and is also reaching out to smaller communities in Northern Ontario.

“What we want to do is develop a vaccine delivery process that works across the 500 long-term care settings that we are connected to across Canada,” she said.

“It works independent of the size of the community.”

Even with vaccine hesitancy being seen as vaccinations make the way into the region, experts say this is what they’ve been waiting for.

“This is very much the light at the end of the tunnel and we were thrilled to get vaccine and to get it rolled out quickly,” said Dr. Corneil.

“This is a population that is also equally excited about getting vaccine. So lots of smiles, some tears, lots of really nice good news stories.”