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Long-term care facilities key to vaccination rollout strategy

Published: Dec. 16, 2020 at 4:51 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2020 at 7:16 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont health care workers are receiving the state’s first coronavirus vaccine doses, and now the push is on to protect the elderly who live in long-term care facilities.

It comes as another five COVID-19-related deaths were reported in Vermont Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 105. Three of those five deaths were in hospitals and the other two were in long-term care facilities, once again highlighting how vulnerable the elderly are to COVID-19. People age 80 and older account for just 5% of Vermont’s COVID cases, but that same age group represents 53% of the state’s COVID deaths.

Nursing homes like Birchwood Terrace in Burlington have suffered from significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Health care leaders say vaccinating residents and staff represents a huge leap forward on the state’s road to recovery.

Heather Mcallister, a registered nurse with Bayada Home Health Care, says she considers it her duty to take a dose as soon as it’s available. “I do think the first or second round, we will start to see less of outbreaks,” she said.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Is it something you’re concerned about?

Heather Mcallister: It is something I’m concerned about only because most vaccines take 20 years to develop. This has been a six-month period, and we don’t know the long-term effects.

Despite the many unknowns, Mcallister says getting the COVID-19 immunization is a personal sacrifice she must make. “When one person gets it in a long-term care facility, you’re seeing 20 to 70 -- maybe you’ll see 10,” she said.

At-risk residents and staff in congregated settings who are most susceptible to spread will soon receive one of 6,000 doses in the first round. By next month, some 60,000 other health care workers and Vermonters in long-term care facilities will get it.

The Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living oversees those facilities. Commissioner Monica Hutt says thanks to Vermont’s first shipment of shots, the conversation around coronavirus has shifted to one of hope. “It’s so clear that our long-term care facilities are a reflection of the community around us, so they’ve really been the barometer when we see community spread increase. To know that they will be soon enough insulated and protected against that is such a relief,” she said.

Three pharmacies are distributing and administering the vaccine under what the state is calling the Pharmacy Partnership for Long Term Care program. That group includes Kinney Drugs, CVS, and Walgreens. Rite Aid is not participating.

Hutt says most importantly, the vaccine will protect staff who’ve been instrumental in keeping residents safe, but also responsible for unknowingly introducing the virus into facilities. “There is certainly a period of time that’s going to need to lapse between the first immunization and a relaxation of the standards around really aggressive testing, surveillance of staff, health screenings,” she said.

Though herd immunity will take time to achieve, Hutt says she hopes families with members in facilities finally feel like they have something to smile about, knowing they can soon hug them and hold their hand once again. “We know what the views in Vermont are like at the top of mountains, and that’s what I think is going to be our experience when we get to the top of this climb, back out of this deep, dark hole that it feels like we’ve been in,” she said.

All long term care facilities, health officials, and representatives from the three pharmacies are working together. Officials say this way every party is on the same page -- confident and comfortable with the process -- as vaccines are distributed and administered at long-term care facilities.

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