CORONAVIRUS

Nursing homes express frustration over vaccine planning in Iowa

Officials say they've received little word from commercial partners on timeline

Pharmacy technician Suzanne Eagan shakes a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine before drawing a dose for a heal
Pharmacy technician Suzanne Eagan shakes a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine before drawing a dose for a health care worker at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Monday. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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As the first vaccine against the novel coronavirus was developed and seemed likely to earn federal approval earlier this month, Iowa’s long-term care facilities began to breathe a sigh of relief.

The majority of facilities in the state signed up to receive the vaccine from commercial pharmacies and started to plan for vaccinating their residents, among those most vulnerable to the virus.

But even as the vaccine was authorized for emergency use and shipped to hospitals across the nation, nursing home administrators heard little word as to when to expect it to arrive at their facility. And with this week’s news of a potential shortfall of doses, some officials at nursing homes across Eastern Iowa say that anxiety is beginning to feed into frustration.

“I tell (residents and their families) that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and to just hang in there,” said Kim Bergen-Jackson, administrator at Oaknoll Retirement Residence in Iowa City. “ ... But then I get to the tunnel and all the lights are off. No one has any answers.”

The majority of nursing homes across the state are enrolled in the Long Term Care Pharmacy Partnership Program, a federal program that has enlisted retail pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, to distribute and administer the COVID-19 vaccine among residents and staff.

Four hundred thirty nursing facilities in Iowa have enrolled in this program, according to the Iowa Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities in the state.

Iowa nursing homes should expect the first doses to arrive as soon as Dec. 28, according to the association.

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However, the association’s statement noted it could be that not every facility would see the vaccines on Dec. 28, as the retail pharmacies still are working to schedule clinics to administer the first doses to more than 19,000 residents and 25,500 staff.

Earlier this week, state officials announced they could see a 20 percent reduction from initial projections in its first shipments of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, dropping the anticipated number of total doses from 172,000 to 138,300.

On Friday, state officials said they still anticipate to begin vaccinating nursing home residents the week of Dec. 28.

Andy Maas, administrator at Briarwood Health Center in Iowa City, said he also has not received any indication when he can begin vaccinating the 48 residents at his facility, which so far has avoided an outbreak of the virus.

“It’s tough having that out of our hands,” Maas said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t have a staff member or a resident or their families ask me if I’ve heard anything (about the vaccine) yet.”

Bergen-Jackson said this week’s news from the state about a potential delay in doses has sent mixed messages to her facility and its roughly 400 residents at Oaknoll, which had signed on with Walgreens to receive the vaccine.

The senior living community has multiple levels of care, including assisted living and independent living. Bergen-Jackson said she has not received any indication when those residents will be vaccinated, as they are not considered part of the 1a priority group.

Oaknoll so far has prevented any positive infections among any of its residents, and Bergen-Jackson said she is anxious to give them the protection of a vaccine.

‘Trust the system’

But a foggy timeline is not a cause for alarm for other officials at local long-term care facilities, including Coralville-based nursing home Windmill Manor. To administrator Stacey Cremeens, the vaccine still is that long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.

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“We just have to trust the system. It will come, it’s just a matter of time,” said Cremeens, who is anticipating 200 doses for staff and residents.

Hospitals across the state began vaccinating front line health care workers and other staff when the first shipment arrived early this week. However, state officials say federal guidelines require states to have on hand at least 50 percent of the vaccine they’ll need for nursing homes before they begin administering them.

The Iowa Health Care Association stated it will take three to four weeks to administer the first dose to all residents and staff. With a waiting period requirement of 21 days between the two doses, officials expect pharmacies will begin administering the second dose on Feb. 2.

The federal program should finalize administration sometime in early March, according to the Iowa Health Care Association.

“The coming delivery of this vaccine to our long-term care residents and staff is welcome news,” said Brent Willett, president and CEO of the association.

“This has been a brutal year for our state’s elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions who reside in long-term care settings. The vaccine is our best defense in protecting them and finding our way back to normal.”

Vigilance urged

Even when all long-term care residents and staff are vaccinated, state and federal public health officials still are urging caution and asking that population to continue to be vigilant in their public health safety measures.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommends nursing homes do not allow in-person visits — with an exception to certain compassionate care scenarios — if the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is higher than 10 percent.

Maas said his facility will not relax restrictions until the surrounding community has achieved herd immunity against the virus.

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According to the Iowa Health Care Association, the long-term effectiveness will not be known at least until March.

“We know this has been an incredibly difficult year for Iowa families, but there is a light on the horizon,” Willett said in the statement.

“We can reach it if we remain disciplined and diligent. We have come too far and lost too many loved ones to let our guard down now.”

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

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