Only 56% of care home staff had received a Covid-19 booster in the week before Christmas, it can be revealed.
Despite evidence showing the booster is required to offer the best protection against Omicron, correspondence from health officials dated December 22 has highlighted low uptake of the booster by staff.
The impact of Omicron on older people is not yet known and Covid-19 infections in care homes have spiralled upwards — up from 44 outbreaks on December 23 to 112 on December 30.
Fears are now growing about the safety of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland as the number of Covid-19 cases soar.
Julieann McNally from Care Home Advice and Support NI (CHASNI) said: “It is alarming to hear only 56% of staff have had their booster and we would encourage anyone who hasn’t already had a booster to get it as soon as possible.
“This is a very worrying time for residents and their families, particularly as so many care homes are now dealing with outbreaks — it’s actually a quarter of all homes in Northern Ireland.
“It would helpful if there was a little more clarity on the outbreaks, whether it’s two members of staff who have infections, or whether residents are affected.
“And of course, the more infections in the community, the greater the risk an outbreak will occur in the home, as well as the impact on staffing levels.
“We know homes are struggling to maintain safe staffing levels due to staff being off because they have Covid or they are a close contact, which increases the pressure on the care homes.”
A letter from the Public Health Agency and Regulation and Quality Inspection Authority on December 22 outlined a range of measures ahead of the Omicron wave.
It noted that 85% of care home residents had received a booster at that stage, but said “this figure is much less for staff at 56%”.
The guidance continued: “Full vaccination will help protect both the staff and the residents that they are caring for against severe illness, as well as reducing the chances of passing infection onto others.
“In the context of this guidance, fully vaccinated means three doses of Covid-19 vaccine — two doses and one booster, or three doses for those individuals who met the criteria.”
The guidance, signed by the chief executives of the Public Health Agency and Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, also recommended that “staff social gatherings should be discouraged”.
Concerns have previously been raised over the situation in care homes throughout the pandemic. Charities, support groups and care home providers complained about a lack of financial support and availability of personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic.
A controversial policy which resulted in people infected with Covid-19 moving into care homes was also widely criticised, while some care homes claimed they were put under pressure to accept residents with the virus.
According to figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, there have been 1,139 deaths of care home residents linked to Covid-19 up to December 17 last year, which accounts for 28.6% of all Covid-19 related deaths in Northern Ireland since the start of the pandemic.