Covid-19: Families express fears for Donegal care home residents waiting for vaccines

‘They’re playing Russian roulette with these lives,’ says son of Donegal facility resident

Cathal Doherty visits his father, John, in a care home in St Columbcille Village in Clonmany, Co Donegal on January 27th. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Cathal Doherty visits his father, John, in a care home in St Columbcille Village in Clonmany, Co Donegal on January 27th. Photograph: Joe Dunne

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Relatives of elderly residents in a Donegal care home are afraid their loved ones will die of Covid-19 because they have been left out of the initial round of vaccinations.

“They’re sitting ducks,” said Dr Gerry Robins, a consultant working on Covid-19 wards whose 82-year-old mother, Hannah, lives in the home. “There’s a means of protecting them, or decreasing that risk significantly, and they’re not being allowed it.

“They’re playing Russian roulette with these lives,” said Cathal Doherty. “My father could die unnecessarily.

“They need vaccinated. We want their lives to be saved, before it’s too late.”

Mr Doherty’s 84-year-old father John is one of 12 elderly residents who live in the high-support unit in Saint Columbcille Village in Clonmany. The centre run by a voluntary organisation and part funded by the HSE is also home to about 20 more people who live in self-contained sheltered housing.

Because the HSE prioritises over 65s in “nurse-led” units over those staffed by carers without medical training, those in the facility have got no indication yet of when they will get vaccinated even though residents must be referred to the centre by the HSE.

“Every time I speak to my father on the phone he says, ‘Are we getting the vaccine?’,” said Mr Doherty. “They’re watching the news, they know they’re getting it in other care homes but they’re not getting it, and they don’t know why.”

In order to keep the residents safe, the home remains closed to visitors; staff work 12-hour shifts and keep their own contacts to a minimum.

“All I want is to be able to give her a hug,” says Catherine McCarron of her 88-year-old aunt, Bridget McDonald. “She’s sitting in the home rubbing the screen [on a video call], and she thinks she’s rubbing my face. This is time with her that we won’t get back.

“I keep telling her it’s only going to be three more weeks now, and you’ll get the vaccine and you’re going to be safe. She keeps saying, ‘Is is three weeks yet?’ She has no concept of time, and I haven’t the heart to tell her.”

‘They are priority one’

She and other relatives have challenged the rationale provided to them by the HSE, which prioritises over 65s in “nurse-led” units over those staffed by carers without medical training. No such distinction is made by the Government’s list of provisional vaccine allocation groups, which gives group one priority to “people aged 65 years and older who are residents of long-term care facilities”.

“Somebody somewhere has decided that these lives, or these carers, are not as important as nurses, because someone in a nurse-led home gets a vaccination, but someone in a carer-run home doesn’t, so they mustn’t have the same value,” said Mr Doherty.

“They are priority one, they are over 65, they tick all the boxes . . . why are they making a distinction between one person and another? Covid doesn’t distinguish,” he said.

“They are in a long-term care facility and I don’t understand how they can make a difference,” said Marie Porter, whose husband’s uncle Pat Doherty is also a resident. “The youngest is 71 and the oldest are in their 90s, and the vaccines would give us and them that little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

In a statement to The Irish Times, the HSE confirmed the home was “not included in the initial round of vaccination which prioritise over 65s in nurse-led 24 hour units.”

These type of units, the HSE said, which are “run by carers as opposed to nurse-led care, have been flagged to the National Task Force and these will be prioritised very shortly.”

The HSE said it was “acutely aware” that everyone in vulnerable groups was keen to get vaccinated as quickly as possible and it was doing everything it could to do so, but the “key constraint is the limited supply of vaccine available, so it is not possible to reach everyone as quickly as we would like.”

Once the supply of vaccine improved, it said, it hoped that the vaccination of Saint Columbcille’s residents “will progress swiftly”, but it also acknowledged that, currently, “we do not have an exact time frame for the roll out of the vaccine to this group.”

Data

Asked how many other such homes in the State are affected, the HSE said it was “currently gathering data on unregistered congregated settings for older persons with a view to agreeing a vaccination process for them.”

Dr Robins, who is a clinical physician in York hospital, said the Government guidelines made no distinction between the type of care provided in a residential home, and in his experience anyone living in a care facility was in a “high risk group”.

“The vast majority of patients we are seeing are from the older population and they’ve got the highest mortality, there’s no doubt about it, that’s why they’ve been identified as the priority for the vaccine,” he said. “I’ve seen it go through care homes very quickly here.

“This is about protecting individuals but also about protecting the health service as well, as they are the group most likely to need hospital treatment.”

“My aunt came to the home from the nursing unit in Buncrana, ” says Ms McCarron. “She would have got the vaccine there. They need to stop discriminating against them.”

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