CORONAVIRUS

COVID-19 vaccination begins at nursing homes across the state

'I didn't hesitate' says Iowa City facility resident

Assisted living coordinator and registered nurse Jaclyn Craig embraces administrator Kim Bergen-Jackson moments after re
Assisted living coordinator and registered nurse Jaclyn Craig embraces administrator Kim Bergen-Jackson moments after receiving her vaccination from pharmacist Kyle Erkel, her former neighbor, at Oaknoll Retirement Residence in Iowa City on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Craig is 34 weeks pregnant with her new daughter, Cora Jean Craig, and says she is hopeful about the new vaccine. After getting the vaccine herself she left with Erkel to head upstairs and begin vaccinating residents on the second floor. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The vaccine against the novel coronavirus has begun to arrive at nursing homes across the state this week, offering a new level of protection for some of the most medically fragile populations.

Though the vaccine is likely to help prevent outbreaks of the virus among residents and staff, state health care officials say it still could be some time before these facilities begin to resume in-person visits and other activities.

Because of that, many facilities have not adjusted their guidelines and residents say they have no plans to change their habits.

“The reason I follow restrictions so carefully is because I would be horrified if I would bring in an infection,” said Wetherill Winder, an 80-year-old residing at Oaknoll Retirement Residence in Iowa City.

She, along with dozens of others in the senior living community, received their first doses Tuesday morning.

“That would be hard to bear, and I don’t feel free from that at all. We’re heading in the right direction, but I still feel it’s important to be careful,” Winder said.

Oaknoll, which has yet to see a positive case among its residents, hopes to complete inoculation for all of the staff and residents of its nursing home and assisted-living facilities by Wednesday.

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So far, officials have seen no adverse reactions among the roughly 200 individuals who received their first dose, including one staff member who is 34 weeks pregnant.

The Iowa City senior living community is among the 20 percent to 25 percent of Iowa’s nursing homes receiving doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech starting this week, according to Brent Willett, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Health Care Association, which represents state long-term care facilities.

Administration at the vast majority of Iowa facilities is being coordinated by three retail pharmacies — mostly CVS and Walgreens — under a federal program. The remaining 75 percent should complete the first round of vaccinations in about three weeks, Willett said.

State officials did not say how many doses of the vaccine had been administered so far in nursing homes and other similar facilities across Iowa. A state public health spokeswoman referred that question to the three pharmacy companies that are conducting the federal program, adding that the state will provide an update at a news conference next week.

Walgreens and Community Pharmacy, the third pharmacy involved in administering the vaccines, did not respond to requests for information. CVS responded only with its overall goals, but did not supply any up-to-date numbers.

“This nationwide, mobilized effort began (Monday) in 486 skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities in Iowa, which will reach an estimated 49,836 people,” a CVS spokeswoman wrote.

The retail chain added the company expects to complete its long-term care facility vaccinations in roughly three months.

The state public health spokeswoman said the state plans to begin publishing daily totals of Iowans vaccinated sometime after Friday, Jan. 1.

‘Scared every day’

The arrival of the vaccine this week was a heartening moment for many members of staff, who have watched the movements of the pandemic with anxiety, and sometimes alarm.

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“We’ve been scared every day since this whole thing started,” said Sarah Neary, an Oaknoll social worker.

“Even if it just means not feeling quite so scared and that there’s a layer of protection for the residents, that makes a huge difference.”

Public health guidelines on these facilities has meant residents at long-term care facilities have been unable to see their loved ones for the past several months, which has had lasting emotional effects, Neary said.

For residents such as 89-year-old Ruth Ann Small, it’s meant a loss of independence and missing out on activities she enjoys, including her weekly games of bridge with friends. Because of that, she said she was willing to take a chance on the vaccine.

“I didn’t hesitate to do it,” Small said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Beyond the historical implications for the development of the vaccine, the shot itself was “nothing spectacular” said Norm Kallaus, a 96-year-old resident at Oaknoll. Within hours of his dose, he reported no symptoms or signs of discomfort.

“It takes more than a little shot to get me down. This one was no big deal,” he said.

Guidance

The federal committee advising on states on their COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans issued new guidance Dec. 18 stating residents of nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities and assisted living centers should be offered a vaccine within the initial phase.

According to Willett, assisted-living centers that are attached to nursing homes — which account for roughly half of the total 258 assisted-living facilities in Iowa — will receive the vaccine at the same time as its nursing home counterparts in the coming weeks.

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However, assisted-living facilities that aren’t attached to a nursing home will not receive doses in this first round of distribution.

Willett said state or federal guidance hasn’t made it clear when these residents can expect their vaccines, but he estimated they will at least wait until nursing home distribution is complete in about three weeks.

Independent-living facilities, regardless of whether they are connected to a nursing home facility, are not included in the first priority group, according to federal guidance.

These residents are expected to be in a priority tier, based on their age and other risk factors the population faces in the event of a COVID-19 infection. Willett said the Iowa Health Care Association has not been advised on where they would fall in the distribution plan.

Pharmacies will begin administering the second dose of the vaccine 21 days later, starting the week of Feb. 2.

It won’t be until 21 days after the second dose that recipients will be fully protected against COVID-19, Willett said.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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