Vaccine coming soon to nursing homes, but family visits likely months away

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Editor's note: This story is available for free to all viewers as part of TSnews' ongoing COVID-19 coverage.

By Celia Llopis-JepsenKansas News Service

COVID-19 poses such dire risks to older people in nursing homes that even vaccines won’t guarantee a quick end to their pandemic isolation.Tens of thousands of workers and residents at Kansas long-term care facilities will get vaccinated over the next three months. But families aching to visit after such a long separation may not have easy access to their loved ones for several more months at least.“We will not be clicking our fingers and returning to normal,” said William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University. “There is not a silver bullet.”Even for young people, the new vaccines don’t offer a 100 percent guarantee against contracting coronavirus. And the shots may be less effective for older people.That means nursing homes still need to be cautious by insisting workers and others who enter their buildings continue to don masks and diligently screen any visitors for the virus or possible signs of it.As the broader public gets vaccinated and community transmission slows, that will lower the risks that even asymptomatic family members can unwittingly pose. Reaching that point will take several months, at least.

The vaccine rollout at nursing homes

Giving shots to tens of thousands of Kansans as fast as possible is a massive undertaking that comes when health care workers already find themselves battling exhaustion.But they say this feels like a new phase in a fight they can win.Lindsborg Community Hospital in central Kansas put its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine into a container labeled “Box of Hope.”Pharmacists share that sense of coming relief.“It’s been a really long year for all of us,” Nate Burrell said. He’s a pharmacist who oversees 18 pharmacies for CVS Health in the Kansas City metro and as far west as Salina. “But I think we all feel kind of energized now.”CVS Health and Walgreens will help carry out a federal initiative to get the sometimes logistically tricky job of moving temperature-sensitive vaccines to nursing and housing facilities that predominantly serve people over the age of 65.CVS’ pharmacy teams start fanning out on Monday, and must make three trips to each of the 360 sites they’ll visit. (People need two doses – administered three or four weeks apart, depending on which brand of vaccine they get.) By the end of three months, they’ll have vaccinated up to 40,000 people.“You think about the disproportionate number of really severe cases or deaths that have occurred in these nursing facilities,” Burrell said. “Quite honestly, I don’t think we can wait to get started.”Kansas has seen more than 500 outbreaks of the virus in long-term care since the pandemic began. Those clusters – at least two cases each, but sometimes infecting dozens of patients and workers at a single facility – have killed nearly 1,000 people.That makes such outbreaks the single biggest source of pandemic-related deaths in Kansas, where nearly 2,500 people have died since March.When the virus surged across Kansas this fall, it found its way into even very rural facilities. Now, most Kansas nursing homes have had cases of COVID-19 among their residents.The rollout to the wider communityPharmacies have been preparing for weeks – even months – for the massive vaccination effort. And still, they need all the hands they can get.More pharmacists. More pharmacy technicians.The pharmacists who will give shots at nursing homes hope to get vaccinated themselves soon. To enter long-term care facilities, they will undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear protective gear.Other essential workers and people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 also rank high on the state’s priority for vaccine access until supplies increase enough to accommodate the wider public.

Vaccine background

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has OK’d two vaccines so far for emergency use.It greenlighted Pfizer’s version on Dec. 11 and gave the go-ahead for Moderna’s on Dec. 18.Kansas got nearly 24,000 doses of the Pfizer version within days. By the end of a week, vaccination had gotten underway in all but a handful of the state’s 105 counties.Gov. Laura Kelly says nearly 50,000 doses of the Moderna product should arrive this week.Unlike Pfizer’s version, which requires extra-cold temperatures that make transportation and storage more difficult, Moderna’s holds up in normal freezers that the average doctor’s office or pharmacy would have on hand.

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