VANCOUVER -- B.C. care home operators are asking the province for details on how many of their own staff are vaccinated against COVID-19 as outbreaks come under increasing scrutiny.

Though they have dramatically fallen compared to the first year of the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks continue to unfold in seniors’ homes in B.C.. With more than 90 per cent of residents vaccinated with at least a first dose, the question is whether vaccination rates among staff members could be contributing to the problem.

Anecdotally, there are reports that many homes have only two-thirds of their staff vaccinated, with concerns some facilities could have vaccination rates as low as one in five.

“Operators of care homes don’t know how many of their staff have been vaccinated, so you can’t really assess risk in the workplace without that knowledge,” said BC Care Providers Association CEO Terry Lake, who says operators regularly get data on influenza vaccination levels.

“If you know there’s only 60 or 70 per cent of your staff vaccinated, you can redouble your efforts to take the vaccine and certainly you can put in extra layers of precautions, like rapid testing,” Lake said.

CTV News first tried to unearth site-by-site vaccination rates in B.C. care homes last month, but the Ministry of Health did not provide the information. The latest attempt on Friday was equally unsuccessful, though the ministry did provide an update on overall numbers. 

As of April 15, 46,373 staff of long-term care and assisted-living facilities had received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. One month later, 47,638 are now vaccinated; an increase of just 1,265. The province did not provide a percentage of workers that represents.

“I think the overall take-up in long-term care of vaccination has been excellent,” insisted Health Minister Adrian Dix on Thursday, pointing out when public health goes back to care homes to administer second doses it’s a good opportunity to provide first doses to staff and residents alike.

“We're monitoring these things all the time,” he said. “Remember there are new people coming in and working and obviously new residents in long-term care, so it's important we keep the situation updated.”

Unreported outbreaks now on the books

Dix’s comments came on the heels of a surprising admission from the province’s top doctor.

A week after defending the province’s controversial decision to declare “enhanced surveillance” rather than an outbreak when a single staff member tests positive for COVID-19 in a care home, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry admitted that in at least two cases, officials should have declared outbreaks. 

“It has come to my attention in the past week that there are several outbreaks in assisted living that were responded to over the past number of months — and were managed as aggressively as we do for all outbreaks — but have not been reported or posted in our outbreak reports,” said Henry. “Recently, as we became aware of this, we want to make sure that all of these outbreaks are in our outbreak reports and they will be added today for transparency.”

Care homes cannot declare COVID-19 outbreaks, only a health authority can. The two outbreaks Henry referenced were both in Vancouver Costal Health, which was responsible for escalating the response when subsequent cases were discovered, rather than maintaining “enhanced surveillance.” The “enhanced surveillance” designation doesn’t require more screening or notification of residents and family members; it essentially instructs care home operators to keep an extra close eye out for symptoms.

Vancouver’s Chalmers Lodge Assisted Living is now listed as having an outbreak start date of November 11, with 6 residents and 3 staff testing positive for COVID-19. 

At the Terraces on 7th in Kitsilano, two staffers fell ill, as did 10 residents, two of whom died during the outbreak, which is now documented as starting on Dec. 22.

CTV News has asked the operator of the facility whether an outbreak was ever declared there, or whether the situation was managed under enhanced surveillance, as well as whether they notified staff and residents of the cases. No one has responded yet.

Do outbreaks reduce vaccine hesitancy?

All of the residents at the Terraces and Chalmers Lodge had their first COVID-19 vaccine shot by Feb. 15, but only the health authorities know how many of the staff have had one or both of their vaccinations by now.

“It varies from home to home and where you’ve seen outbreaks in the past, you see greater uptake,” said Lake. “That’s natural — people are far more personally aware of the ramifications of the virus. And where they haven’t had an outbreak, I think there’s more reticence … I think it’s changing. I think people that were maybe hesitant at first are starting to come around, but we don’t know that for sure since we don’t have the data.”