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Preparing To Vaccinate, Maine Nursing Homes Decide Who Gets Priority

David Goldman
Associated Press
A bed sits made at the South Shore Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Rockland, Mass.

Vaccine preparations are underway at long-term care facilities across the country, where workers and the most at-risk residents are supposed to be the first to get the shots as early as next week.

It’s a massive logistical undertaking that will involve CVS and Walgreens to help store and administer the doses. Currently, there’s not nearly enough vaccine to go around, and deciding who gets priority is just one of many questions that has to be answered quickly.

The Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast was one of the first in Maine to experience an outbreak of COVID-19. Thirty-two residents and 11 staff were infected, and 13 residents died. Now, interim administrator Leslie Currier says the facility is planning for the vaccine rollout with the help of CVS and another pharmacy.

“Being a smaller facility, the fact that they’re going to be coming on-site to support the actual vaccination process is helpful. You know, our staff is pretty busy most days,” she says.

Vaccinations will be administered in a series of clinics for both staff and residents. Currier says they will not be mandatory.

“We have approximately 60 staff and, you know, staff have mixed feelings about receiving the vaccine. I’m frankly glad that England started ahead of us, because that gives us a week or two to see what’s happening there and that might provide some information and, hopefully, reassurance to our staff,” she says.

Residents and their families also have to be educated about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine before they give their consent or choose to opt out. These discussions are being held around the state as nursing homes determine how much vaccine they’re getting and whether they want staff or residents protected first.

“Our member facilities have education materials so people can understand what the pros and cons of the vaccination are and can provide informed consent to the pharmacy,” says Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents more than 90 nursing homes in Maine.

Kim Gerard of Turner has already made up his mind.

“Well, I think the vaccine is wonderful. Thank God for our government in herding this along and getting it out to the public. And I have tremendously high hopes that this is going to end this crisis,” he says.

Gerard’s mother is a resident of the Clover Health Care Center in Auburn, which has lost 19 residents since the start of the pandemic, five just last week. He says it’s been a scary time, but he’ll have no hesitation giving his consent for his mother to be vaccinated.

Linda Sherwood has a different take.

“I’m concerned that there’s not enough long-term studies to show what the side effects even might be,” she says.

Sherwood, who has a power of attorney for her mother at Clover Health Care, says she will not give permission for the vaccination. She’s skeptical that the vaccine is safe, especially for someone like her mother, who she says has had adverse reactions to the flu vaccine in the past.

Sherwood’s mother will not be the only resident who won’t be receiving the vaccine. Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, the chief medical officer at Continuum Health Services, the parent company for Clover Health Care and three other nursing homes in Maine, says the immediate goal is to figure out which staff and patients should get vaccinated first. They’ll do that in part, he says, through testing of antibodies to COVID.

“Those who have positive antibodies, we’ll assume natural immunity even though the science is not settled yet. But if we have to choose, we’re gonna choose to vaccinate those who have no antibodies to COVID,” he says.

Fazeli says another consideration will be those who have underlying health conditions such as hypertension that make them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. But priorities and logistics aside, he says there is one bigger issue that keeps him awake at night.

“What’s keeping me awake is that we an do all this and it won’t matter if the community doesn’t vaccinate. Because community transmission is going to be our Achilles heel,” he says.

Research suggests that the virus cannot be impeded unless at least 70 percent of the public is protected and herd immunity is achieved. A recent Gallup poll found that less than 60 percent of Americans are ready to roll up their sleeves.