Hit hard by COVID-19 one year ago, vaccinations bring hope for Ukrainian-Canadian LTC home

Toronto student Sophia Holowaty has always had a very close relationship with her great-grandmother. But they haven’t seen each other in person since last November.

Holowaty recently celebrated her 21st birthday over a FaceTime call with her great-grandmother. Their birthdays are just six months apart, so Holowaty makes a point to also celebrate her great-grandmother’s half birthday on the same day. This year, she turned 100 and a half.

“My relationship with my great-grandmother is like no other relationship that I have with anyone in my life,” Holowaty said. “I’m very inspired by her strength, resilience and uplifting spirit.”

Holowaty’s great-grandmother Katharina Kowalczuk lives in the Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre (UCCC) in Toronto, which saw an outbreak one year ago that killed 10 residents and infected 98 people in total.

For a tight-knit community that always came together for events and other large gatherings such as festivals and fundraisers, the sudden loss of socialization came hard.

Though they communicate via FaceTime on a weekly basis, Holowaty said her biggest fear is her great-grandmother feeling isolated without that regular in-person connection from her loved ones.

Since January 2021, the home has been COVID-19 free and 89 per cent of its residents have been vaccinated, including Kowalczuk.

Irena Dounets, the executive director at St. Demetrius Development Corporation that manages the UCCC, said the care home has returned to delivering group activities for the residents. These include bingo, exercise classes, reading and walking clubs and virtual church services. Residents that can wear a mask do so and participants are socially distanced.

Dounets said the next steps would hopefully include outside visits from family and friends, while still adhering to public health guidelines.

However, the Ontario government has yet to give the go-ahead for any outdoor activities for long-term care residents. In a press briefing on March 23, Ontario’s Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton cited concerns about the COVID-19 variants and those not yet vaccinated.

Peter Schturyn, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress — Toronto branch, said the pandemic has been especially difficult for the tight-knit community.

“It’s been a real challenge for our community; not being able to be out and socializing and getting together on a regular basis,” Schturyn said. He added that the community is “hopeful” about the vaccinations and the possibility of in-person reunions by the end of the summer.

Holowaty said she is optimistic about getting the vaccine and having the chance to visit her great-grandmother through the window or even in-person outside.

“When I get to visit my great-grandmother in person, the impact is much greater on the both of us, but most importantly for her,” she said.

Since Kowalczuk doesn’t talk much these days, Holowaty also said she looks forward to sitting next to her great-grandmother and playing her favourite song, “You Are My Sunshine.”

Alexandra Holyk is a Ryerson University journalism student, being mentored by CTV National News Executive Producer Rosa Hwang as part of the Canadian Association of Journalists mentorship program.