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Vaccination Begins For Maine Nursing Homes, But Hurdles Remain

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Susan Dionne-Jones, director of nursing at the Cedars in Portland.

Starting Monday, it’s nursing home staff and residents’ turns to get the COVID-19 vaccine — a week after immunizations began for frontline hospital workers. But the rollout at skilled nursing facilities won’t be as swift as it was for hospitals — while many in nursing homes are eager for the extra protection from the vaccine, there are concerns that some may not be willing to get it.

Among the people who are thrilled to get the vaccine is Diane Calder, a resident at The Cedar’s nursing home in Portland, one of the few facilities in Maine to begin COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday.

“I just had it,” she says, talking into a microphone connected to a speaker outside the building.

Visitors haven’t been allowed in for months. It’s a stark reminder of how life has been altered for residents in nursing homes.

But on this day, Calder says she feels lucky for the vaccine, and the pharmacy technicians who are administering the shots.

“I thanked them, because it takes people like them to give us a chance to have it and live,” she says. “I’m just so grateful.”

The vaccine also gave a dose of hope to resident Diane Lombard. The pandemic, she says, has been trying.

“Not being able to see family. Like my granddaughters when they’ve been home from college,” she says.

Lombard wraps her arm around her chest to demonstrate the type of self-hug to which she and her family are now relegated. The Cedars provides Zoom, FaceTime and window visits for residents, but Director of Nursing Susan Dionne-Jones says it’s just not the same as in-person visits.

“The family members and the residents want to be able to touch their person. It’s hard. A touch means so much to somebody. And we always have these masks on. We have these face shields on. We’ve been doing this for months and months. They don’t even see us smile. It’s so tough, because it’s tough to have an emotional connection,” she says.

And the vaccine gets them one step closer to that connection, Dionne-Jones says. So when she was asked recently whether she could have staff and residents ready for a clinic Monday, she sprang into action.

“At first I’m like, ‘Geez, I don’t know.’ But I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” she says.

It’s an opportunity that many nursing homes won’t get till the new year. CVS and Walgreens are setting up clinics for Maine’s 94 nursing homes under a federal partnership that leverages the retail pharmacy workforce to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to long-term care facilities.

The Maine CDC is not operating the program, but director Nirav Shah says his agency is an active observer. And pharmacies have assured him that all of Maine’s nursing homes will have at least one vaccine clinic by the end of the first full week of January.

“I’ve got concerns over those timelines. Rest assured that we are going to be inquiring, and have been inquiring, and setting up regular meetings with the retail pharmacies to make sure they are on track,” he says.

One hurdle has to do with the workforce. Both Walgreens and CVS say they plan to hire thousands nationwide to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Walgreens didn’t provide specific numbers for Maine, but a CVS spokesperson says they’re looking to fill 40 positions.

Another hurdle is vaccine supply. Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, medical director of Durgin Pines in Kittery, says he was informed Sunday that he would have to postpone a planned clinic for Monday till next week.

“The delay is related to delivery of the Pfizer vaccine,” he says.

Last week, Maine was informed that its second allocation of the Pfizer vaccine would be 40% lower than expected. Fazeli says the delay is disappointing, especially because Durgin Pines has been dealing with an outbreak among 52 residents and 28 staff. As he prepares for the rollout next week, he’s tackling another issue: getting as many staff as possible on board with getting the shot.

“When I did my information session with my staff over the phone, I had to explain everything from rumors on Facebook about fertility issues resulting from the vaccine to being tagged with the vaccine for purpose of tracking. So we’re having to tackle a lot of disinformation,” he says.

That hesitancy is somewhat widespread, says Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which advocates for nursing homes. He says an informal survey found that about 60% of staff and a slightly higher percentage of residents want the vaccine. But he says the survey was conducted before information on the vaccine was widely publicized.

“What we’re finding in Maine is what they’re seeing across the nation that some people are holding back on accepting the vaccine. But more and more, I think we are seeing acceptance,” Erb says.

At The Cedars, Dionne-Jones says the vast majority of the 50 or so residents in the nursing facility are getting the vaccine. Among staff, it’s about 70 percent. But she believes the number will go up. She says most staff members who opted out of this round will likely feel more comfortable after seeing their colleagues do it.

“‘Well, let me see how they’re going to make out. Are they going to do OK? And if they make out OK, then I’ll be up next,’” she says.

One staff member who decided to opt in is nurse Cynthia Wolfe.

“At first I was a little apprehensive about getting it. But after reading all the documentation, I felt safe getting the shot today,” she says.

Wolfe says it feels like a step in the right direction. Toward a time, she says, when staff and residents will be able to shed the masks, face shields and emerge from isolation.