On March 11, the staff of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale New York gathered: The coronavirus had arrived.
“We are on our own,” said President and CEO Daniel Reingold, who immediately began to secure PPE for his 1,200 staff members and as much Clorox as possible.
Without testing and proper PPE, long-term care centers nationwide were largely left to fend for themselves, particularly in the early days, and later the virus decimated residents. More than 110,000 people have died in these facilities, accounting for about 39% of total COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
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But on Monday, help will arrive. As part of a federal-private partnership, thousands of Walgreens and CVS pharmacists will deploy to begin a historic effort to vaccinate 4.5 million residents and staff at about 55,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide.
In fact, Walgreens began immunizations at long-term care centers in Ohio and Connecticut on Friday.
Walgreens pharmacy team members will provide COVID-19 vaccinations in about 800 long-term care facilities across 12 states the week of Dec. 21.
Vaccinations will arrive at pharmacies, then teams will transport them to the facilities to administer them. This process will need to be completed twice at every center, because both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Walgreens is confident it is up for the logistical challenge.
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“We have 27,000 pharmacists alone that are raising their hands, saying, I am ready right now to administer the vaccine,” said Rina Shah, vice president of pharmacy operations and services. “We just need more vaccine so that we can then continue to immunize as many people as we can to help our communities.“
Walgreens will arrive at the Hebrew Home, New York’s largest non-profit long-term care center, Monday to begin vaccinating its 600 residents and 1,200 staff.
“We’re going to start with our residents who suffer with dementia because those residents are the least able to follow the social distancing, masking and hand-washing,” Reingold said.
They expect Walgreens pharmacists will go room by room for residents, but staff will be vaccinated at a centralized location. The vaccinations for staff will arrive in three waves, ensuring only a third of the staff is vaccinated at a time.
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“That way we can monitor side effects to be sure that everybody is safe,” Reingold explained, “so that we don’t run the risk of having people out sick for any reason because we need our frontline workers here.”
The Hebrew Home has lost 54 residents to COVID-19.
Harriet Krakowsky, 85, remembers at one point she lost both her neighbors. “I lost two people on either side of me,” she said. “That was a scary, horrible couple of days.”
Though she admits she’s a little nervous, she said she’s ready to get the vaccine to put an end to the isolation.
“I became a great-grandma twice this year,” Krakowsky said. “I haven’t seen the babies yet, which is hurting my heart. It really is.”
At the Hebrew Home, so far all resident have decided to get the vaccine. The bulk of the questions is about whether they will have a reaction to the vaccine. There is, however, more apprehension among the staff.
“There’s some mixed feelings around the place, yes,” Eileen Dunnion, a nurse who’s worked at The Hebrew Home for 30 years. “Me personally, I believe in vaccines my whole life.”
Dunnion became infected with COVID-19 while caring for her residents, five of whom died of the virus. She believes it’s important for frontline workers to get vaccinated to set an example.
“They get to know us and trust us as their family, and if we are getting it to help them, they’ll feel more confident,” she said.
The American Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities, nationwide, set a goal of having everyone vaccinated by March 1.
“We’re seeing about 2,000 deaths a week from nursing home residents, so every week we wait is really going to be devastating so the sooner we can get this done, the more lives we will save,” said Dr. David Gifford, the medical director at the AHCA.
No one at the Hebrew Home has gotten sick with COVID-19 since June. But it has been a grueling 10 months.
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“Nothing is going to make me feel better than when I see one of our residents hugging their families for the first time and for us to hug our staff,” an emotional Reingold explained.
“We’ve been doing thumbs up, lots of elbowing, but we missed the opportunity to really embrace each other and our staff has been just extraordinary.”