Fully vaccinated but still in lockdown, long-term care resident says she’s treated ‘less than human’

Saskatchewan

Chelsea Dreher, 32, is fully vaccinated after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in late February, but she hasn’t been able to leave her ward, go outside or visit other residents for almost two weeks.

Chelsea Dreher says she wants a prospective deadline for when long-term care residents will be able to have more visitors.(Submitted by Chelsea Dreher)

Chelsea Dreher, 32, is fully vaccinated after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in late February, but she hasn't been able to leave her ward, go outside or visit other residents for almost two weeks.

That's because she lives at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre, a long-term care facility in Regina, and her particular ward has been under a lockdown since a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 a little less than two weeks ago, she said.

Dreher has cerebral palsy and has lived at the facility for almost nine years. She said living without any freedom is particularly difficult to deal with because she believed vaccinations would make a difference.

"It feels like a kick in the face," she said.

After residents and workers were offered the first dose of the vaccine, Dreher said the facility posted a sheet of paper listing everyone in the building who had accepted it.

While almost all of the residents received the vaccine, she said, only about 50 per cent of the workers did the same.

"It makes me mad," she told CBC News.

"I think when you're working in a facility where you are working with vulnerable people who are more susceptible to illnesses than the average person, then I think vaccination should be mandatory."

After Dreher was fully vaccinated, she asked the unit manager if she would be able to go home for visits. She was told no one would stop her from leaving, but she would need to self-isolate for 14 days when she returned.

"I would essentially be closing my door for two weeks," she said.

Different restrictions

Dreher has a friend in the centre who is also fully vaccinated, and they received special permission to see each other because he doesn't have a lot of family.

Long-term care facilities in Regina are subject to Level 3 restrictions — the most stringent — that only allow family members to visit residents who are dying or declining dramatically.

When the facility is in Level 3, she and her friend are only allowed to meet in the hallway, and when it's under a lockdown, they can't see each other at all.

"I don't understand why we're not allowed to intermingle with residents a little bit because he's not going anywhere else," Dreher said. "He's just going from my room to his room and back."

She said that staff at the facility don't face the same restrictions and are allowed to visit in the cafeteria and mingle with workers from other units, while Dreher and her friend are required to meet in the hallway.

"They're not under the same restrictions and lockdowns that we are at their end of the shift," Dreher said. "They get to go home and go out to get their groceries and what have you. You know, they still have some liberties that they can take and we don't."

Treated 'less than human'

Dreher said she didn't expect things to go back to normal after she was vaccinated, but she would like to have more freedom.

"One thing that I would really like is to just go home like once a week," she said. "That's really all I want at this point, is to go home and see my family and my animals and eat a decent meal."

Dreher said she thought that once she was fully vaccinated, she would be able to see people if she wore a mask, washed her hands and stayed physically distanced, but that hasn't been the case.

She'd like to know a timeline or a procedure for relaxing the restrictions.

"I'm so tired of being treated like less than human, and I imagine the others here are as well," she said. "It's like you don't have rights anymore, you don't have freedoms, you don't have a say in anything. And it's just aggravating."

Ministry reviewing policy

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health said in a statement that it is reviewing the current family visitation policy at long-term care homes and "considering factors including vaccination rates and current community transmission risk."

"The decision to put these measures in place was not made lightly and removing the restrictions will only happen when it is safe to do so," the statement said.

The ministry said any update to the policy would be announced publicly via a news conference or release.

CBC News asked about the vaccine uptake among workers at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre, but the Saskatchewan Health Authority did not provide a response.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anand Kumar said there's no clear formula to determine when long-term care facilities will be able to open up to more visitors.

Kumar, an attending physician at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg and a professor of medicine and medical microbiology and pharmacology at the University of Manitoba, said there will always be a subset of people who can't take the vaccine, who choose not to take the vaccine or whose families choose on their behalf not to do so.

Additionally, he said, many long-term care residents have chronic organ failure, which creates a suboptimal response to the vaccine.

"So rather than getting the high level of protection that we would hope, there may be a subset of people, particularly elderly people, who have less robust resistance to infection after vaccination," he said.

Dr. Anand Kumar, seen here at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg in August 2009, says it may be awhile before long-term care homes can fully reopen. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Long-term care homes also have to contend with the vaccination status of visitors and workers, Kumar said, and he's concerned about variants, noting that data suggests current vaccines only provide partial protection against the new strains.

"My heart goes out to [Dreher]," he said. "It's not fair to her. But then again, it's not fair to the other people that would be put at risk if there was unlimited visitation allowed at this stage."

Kumar said he looks forward to the day when all long-term care facilities can open up and allow full visitation, but it may be awhile before that happens.

"It may be wiser to kind of do it … on a single institution basis," he said. "That is to say, judge each institution based on the level of vaccination, the number of people who are vaccinated, the number of employees and visitors who are vaccinated, etc. Basically make it a judgment case by case."

Mandatory vaccination

Kumar said he thinks mandating that all health-care workers in these facilities be vaccinated is the right thing to do.

"Quite frankly, if I had my way, everybody who works in the institution or visits the institution would have to be vaccinated," he said.

"I think that having a significant number of people not vaccinated, along with a subset of residents who can't be vaccinated potentially or having suboptimal responses to vaccination, really invites disaster."

That said, Kumar said he also thinks there will never be a perfect solution.

If the maximum number of people were vaccinated at a facility, he said, that would be when the facility might be able to open up for visitation.

"At some point you have to start to open up. You have to start giving people some joy back into their lives, especially those that are in long-term care facilities. And so, you know, the question isn't whether it's perfectly safe. The question is whether the risk is an acceptable one."

Dreher said she and the other residents at Wascana Rehab have been getting COVID tests "religiously," and she hopes that with the next round of testing, everyone will be negative and the lockdown will be over soon.

"And I'll be able to see my friend again, which at this point, is needed," she said.

Though her spirits are low, Dreher said she was very excited to get the vaccine because it felt like she was one step closer to getting her life back.

"Now I don't dare to hope to get that back because … it's just going to get ripped away," she said.

And Dreher has a message for the workers who haven't yet received the vaccine: "Maybe you should find a different job."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter and copy editor with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan, and an associate producer with Saskatoon Morning and The Morning Edition. She has been working as a journalist since 2007 and joined CBC in 2017. Email: ashleigh.mattern@cbc.ca.

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