The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway in Arizona and across the country with frontline healthcare workers first in line. Not far behind though, are those in nursing and assisted living facilities.
Roughly 27,000 long term care residents and staff will start getting their doses the week of December 27.
Unlike the healthcare worker operation, organized by federal, state, and county government, pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens are spearheading the long term care effort.
The companies are working with more than a thousand different facilities to get consent forms signed, find out how many doses are needed, and then figure out when and where to set up clinics.
"In the next seven to ten days, the expectation is that CVS and Walgreens will send a kit, a box, that has all of the forms in it. It has everything a skilled nursing facility needs to know. They will have to get those forms filled out and signed off by residents and staff. Then they will have to get their clinic scheduled," said Dave Voepel, CEO of the Arizona Health Care Association.
Voepel is also on the state's Vaccine and Antiviral Prioritization Advisory Committee (VAPAC).
"Medical experts say at least 70% need to be vaccinated before herd immunity will actually kick in," said Voepel. "That’s a pretty big number and hopefully we will hit that in long-term care without an issue."
It could be a challenge though. A poll showed nearly 40% of surveyed Arizona healthcare workers expressed reluctance.
"[Workers] are saying, 'maybe we don’t want to be the first, but we will be the third,'" said Voepel. "There’s trepidation, and that’s with everything, right? It’s brand new and there’s a little bit of a fear factor out there."
Jeff Barrett says he will be first in line at his skilled nursing facility to get the vaccine.
"Please believe the science," said Barrett. "Reasonable education has been done and now it’s boiling down to the emotional side a vaccination."
Barrett is an registered nurse and the Executive Director at Wellsprings of Gilbert. He said he has been encouraging his staff to think about the big picture and long-term ramifications.
"We really do have a sense of ownership to make sure that we are taking care of our families as well as the community, by taking the vaccine," he said.
It is a decision each nurse, receptionist, elderly resident, relative or caretaker will have to make on their own.
"I have to make the best decision for her. And that is a lot of pressure," said Christine Burke. "’I'm not an anti-vaxxer, but I am hesitant about the vaccine."
Christine Burke says her position changed after her Mom contracted coronavirus in November and survived.
"Prior to COVID I was going to give it to her, because I did not feel, based on her medical condition, that she would survive COVID," said Burke. "But thank God she did. [Now] I don’t even know if she needs it. She might have immunity. It’s very confusing."
Doctors though, are working daily to try and clear up confusion and combat misinformation. While it is unclear exactly how long antibodies and immunity last after battling the virus, medical experts encourage everyone to get vaccinated to be sure.
"These vaccines have met all of the touch points; we know that they're effective. Most importantly, we know that they're safe," said Dr. Kevin Ban with Walgreens. "These are very vulnerable people and they're the exact people who need to get this vaccine."
The return to normalcy will take months. "We’ve got to wait until we have a significant number of folks vaccinated, in order to start being able to relax some of our requirements," said Barrett. "I’ll be wearing my face mask for however long it takes."
Barrett and his staff are eager for the day when smiles can be seen again, and community comes back to the facilities.
"If all goes well, this time next year I will be getting ready to have a significant party for my staff and my guests and their families," said Barrett.