NJ nursing-home residents won’t start COVID-19 vaccinations before next week

Long-term-care facilities covered by federal program scheduled to begin next week at earliest
Credit: (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Family members wave goodbye to NYC nursing home resident after drive-up visit.

Public health officials have repeatedly underscored the importance of protecting vulnerable nursing-home residents from the potentially deadly impacts of the coronavirus, given that nearly half of New Jersey’s confirmed COVID-19 fatalities involve long-term-care residents or staff.

But despite their inclusion in the group given priority access to the new coronavirus vaccines, residents and staff at long-term care facilities in New Jersey and elsewhere aren’t likely to be immunized until next week, at the earliest.

That’s because nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care sites were encouraged to enroll in a federal partnership program — not slated to launch until Dec. 21 — that tasked drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens with operating vaccine clinics at these sites. Health care workers, who are also part of the priority group, began to get inoculations earlier this week at hospitals in New Jersey and around the nation that had received vaccine shipments in advance.

“We’re very excited about the fact that there is a vaccine,” said James McCracken, president and CEO of LeadingAge New Jersey and Delaware, which represents about 50 nonprofit facilities in the Garden State. “We’re grateful for the fact that decisionmakers listened to our concerns when we asked for this population to be included in the priority group,” he added. “We want to get it out there as quickly as possible.”

Schedule depends on feds

Dawn Thomas, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Health, said the agency “would like federal partners to start vaccinating as soon as possible” at these locations, but the timing depended on approval by various U.S. government agencies. All of the state’s nearly 700 long-term-care facilities have enrolled in the federal partnership, she said.

Since its start in the United States, the pandemic has taken a particular toll on nursing homes and other long-term facilities, which care for some of the frailest and medically compromised members of society. In New Jersey, more than 45,700 long-term-care residents and staff have been sickened by COVID-19 since March, and at least 7,400 have died — some 46% of the state’s total confirmed coronavirus fatalities.

“We’re working with the most vulnerable people. I think it’s important that we recognize that anything we can do to keep them safe is vital,” said Steve Dumke, the executive vice president and chief operating officer at Christian Health Care Center, a 109-year-old program that operates several long-term care facilities on its Wycoff campus.

National rollout huge task

Residents and family members “are very interested in what the process is going to look like. And the timing,” Dumke said. “We’re ready to do it, but CVS and Walgreens are doing this nationwide, and that’s a herculean task.”

Federal and state officials — and public attention — have largely focused on the logistics and timeline for delivering COVID-19 vaccines to hospitals in order to immunize health care workers. In New Jersey, that process will take at least a month and seeks to vaccinate some 650,000 paid and unpaid providers.

Less is known about the protocol for inoculating those in long-term care, including the 75,000 residents and 90,000 staff members at sites in New Jersey. Once facilities enroll in the program and select a provider, either CVS or Walgreens, they must wait for the drugstore chain to contact them to establish a process and vaccination schedule.

McCracken, with Leading Age, said his members had just started to hear from the drug chains this week and plenty of confusion remains about the process — including requirements for documenting resident consent — and the timeline. “It’s a little surprising,” he said of the rollout process, which leaves each facility to navigate the protocol on its own, but noted it could still be effective.

Jim Gonzales, president of Broadway House for Continuing Care, in Newark, said he has received three emails so far from Walgreens, including a brochure about the program and a draft consent form. “I would prefer a call or a contact person,” he said. “At this point we’re just waiting to hear back from them.”

While Gonzales had hoped to begin the first round of vaccinations at Broadway next week, no date has yet been set for the first clinic. He said appetite for the shot is robust among the 65 residents — some of whom have HIV/AIDS — and interest is growing among the staff as well. “We’re dealing with a very (immune) compromised set of individuals,” he said.

When he gets more information from Walgreens about their consent requirements, Gonzales said nursing staff would start meeting with residents individually to discuss the process and get their signoff. Broadway uses a similar consent form for regular flu vaccines, he said, and all staff and residents participated in those immunizations this fall.

Swabbed in the double digits

“We’re all tired of getting tested” for COVID-19, Gonzales said, noting that he will be swabbed for the 50th time on Friday. “There’s got to be a better use of health care resources” than weekly testing, he said. “To me, the vaccine is the answer.”

At Christian Health, which is working with CVS, Dumke said he is waiting for additional information, including a timeline and details on the consent process. It is not yet clear how many residents will want to be immunized, he said, but the potential has sparked significant interest.

“We’ve been working really hard to communicate (the details of the program) to our residents and their families and all the stakeholders,” he said, a process that would expand once they have more information on the consent requirements. “This is new and in the news, and people have questions,” he said.

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