The Government of Canada, through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), is supporting a study in the Maritimes aimed at determining which health factors cause long-term care residents to experience severe COVID-19 outcomes, including death. The study is also investigating vaccine effectiveness in its elderly population over the next year. This $1.9 million study will be carried out by a team of experts in frailty research, immunology, virology and clinical infectious disease. The team is led by Dr. Lisa Barrett, an expert in infectious diseases and a clinician scientist at Dalhousie University and Nova Scotia Health.
“We still do not understand why residents in long-term care facilities have been so badly affected by COVID-19,” says Dr. Barrett. “Our study aims to determine which health factors cause elderly people to be more susceptible to severe or fatal cases of COVID-19. What role does frailty play in COVID-19 outcomes? Do very frail elderly people form an adequate antibody response to ward off reinfection? Does the presence of other viral infections affect COVID-19 disease severity? We aim to find out through this study.”
Dr. Barrett’s study will involve residents of long-term care facilities in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As of September 2020, two of the facilities included in the study had accounted for over 30% of Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 cases and 82% of the province’s COVID-19-related deaths. Interestingly, while one facility had a COVID-19 outbreak last spring, the other had very few cases. This will allow the study team to compare the immune response in residents who were never infected, residents who were highly exposed but never infected, residents who had moderate symptoms of COVID-19, and residents who had severe symptoms of the disease. In the first wave cohort, all residents of the facilities enthusiastically volunteered to participate in the study, which has provided meaningful data.
The study is also investigating whether vaccines protect residents in long-term care facilities from reinfection, or at least from severe cases of the disease. “Although all vaccines undergo rigorous trials before being approved, the trials did not include frail elderly people,” explains Dr. Barrett. “We took blood samples before vaccination and have taken another blood sample after the first dose of vaccine. We will be taking four blood samples after the second dose from all residents participating over the next year. This will allow us to study their body’s immune response over time to see if the vaccines work effectively in frail elderly people.”
In addition to examining the immunologic changes associated with COVID-19, this study will also help provide an understanding of immunology in the elderly population, which will be important for vaccine development and healthy aging.
“COVID-19 has taken an enormous toll on the elderly and studies like this one are needed so we can better protect them going forward,” says Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice-President, Research, Innovation and Discovery and Chief Nurse Executive, Nova Scotia Health and CITF Leadership Group member. “We need to understand what makes people more at-risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. We also need to understand how effective the vaccines are in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. This study will help provide those answers.”
“There has never been a greater need to conduct medical and health-related research to collect real-time evidence to inform practice, policy and decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Alice Aiken, Vice-President Research and Innovation at Dalhousie University. “We are incredibly proud of Dr. Barrett, who is at the centre of the fight against COVID-19 as one of Canada’s leading voices on infectious disease mitigation.”
“Long-term care facilities have been among the most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Darren Fisher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health and Member of Parliament for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour. “With vaccine rollouts underway in Nova Scotia and across Canada, these studies are critically important to help us understand their effectiveness and impact on seniors, staff and the broader Canadian population.”
“This study will contribute to our understanding of COVID-19 and of vaccine-induced immunity in seniors living in long-term care facilities, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” says Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “Vaccines are a critical tool in our response, and this research will support their most effective use.”
About the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
In late April 2020, the Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force with a two-year mandate. The Task Force is overseen by a Leadership Group of volunteers that includes leading Canadian scientists and experts from universities and healthcare facilities across Canada who are focused on understanding the nature of immunity arising from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. To that end, the CITF is supporting numerous studies to determine the extent of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Canada (in the general population as well as in specific communities and priority populations), understand the nature of immunity following infection, develop improved antibody testing methods, and help monitor the effectiveness and safety of vaccines as they are rolled out across Canada. The Task Force and its Secretariat accordingly work closely with a range of partners, including governments, public health agencies, institutions, health organizations, research teams, other task forces, and engages communities and stakeholders. Most recently, the Task Force has been asked to support vaccine surveillance, effectiveness and safety as part of its overall objective to generate data and ideas that inform interventions aimed at slowing – and ultimately stopping – the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Canada. For more information visit: www.covid19immunitytaskforce.ca
About Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University is Atlantic Canada’s leading research-intensive university. Located in the heart of Halifax, Nova Scotia, with an Agricultural Campus in Truro/Bible Hill, Dalhousie is a truly national and international university, with more than half of the university’s 20,000-plus students coming from outside the province. Dal’s 6,000 faculty and staff foster a diverse, purpose-driven community, one that spans 13 faculties and conducts more than $181 million in research annually. Part of a cluster identified as one of the world’s top international centres in ocean research, the university proudly celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2018.
About Nova Scotia Health
Nova Scotia Health provides health services to Nova Scotians and a wide array of specialized services to Maritimers and Atlantic Canadians. Nova Scotia Health operates hospitals, health centres and community-based programs across the province. Our team of health professionals includes employees, doctors, researchers, learners and volunteers. We work in partnership with community groups, schools, governments, foundations and auxiliaries and community health boards.
Communications Advisor, Office of the Vice President Research and Innovation
Director of Communications – Research, Innovation and Discovery
Nova Scotia Health
COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
Rebecca Burns, Cell: +1.438.871.8763
Caroline Phaneuf, Cell: +1.514.444.4532