Even as the newly-approved COVID-19 vaccine potentially signals the beginning of the end of the pandemic, simmering issues of mistrust and communication are complicating the planned vaccination of nursing home staff and residents slated to begin in a matter of days.
Battered by months of illness, death, staffing shortages and often-inadequate safety measures on the job, many workers already are skeptical that management has their backs. Now, they are concerned not only about the safety of the vaccine itself, but also how it will be administered to staff and patients.
“The workers have been through a lot,” said Pedro Zayas, communications director for SEIU 1199NE, the union representing about a third of the state’s nursing home employees. “No days off, being mandated to work 16-hour days, lack of PPE. We have had 15 of our workers die of COVID and hundreds have been infected. They don’t see administrators as someone they can trust. The best outcome for us would be to endorse the whole process but we need information.”
The FDA gave final approval to Pfizer’s vaccine late Friday. National pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens are expected to deliver and administer the vaccine on-site in the state’s 200 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities through a nationwide partnership program.
Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order last week authorizing licensed pharmacists to administer the vaccine. Sunday, Lamont’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group issued a memo to Dept. of Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford strongly recommending that COVID-19 vaccination in Connecticut begin “at the earliest opportunity” following all relevant federal guidelines.
The group said its own review of how the vaccine was developed, reviewed and authorized concluded the process “was rigorous, transparent, and scientifically sound.”
“In clinical testing, the vaccine has been shown to have extremely high levels of efficacy in preventing COVID-19 and a very favorable safety profile,” the memo read in part. “The scientific, medical, and public health communities will continue to learn more about the vaccine in the coming months, as additional data become available regarding its duration of protection, its performance in specific subgroups, and its adverse events.”
In a release announcing the recommendation, Lamont said the vaccination plan “will provide light at the end of the tunnel for our state to emerge from the pandemic.”
“This is a significant moment for our state and our country,” Lamont said. “Here in Connecticut, we are incredibly proud to be able to say that the Pfizer team in Groton helped to develop this first vaccine to fight the coronavirus which we know will help to get our communities back to normal.”
Hospital workers are scheduled to begin getting vaccinated today, with employees and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to follow next week.
Genesis HealthCare, which runs 17 nursing homes in the state, is working with CVS and plans to begin its vaccination program on Dec. 21.
Company spokeswoman Lori Mayer said discussions with staff about the vaccine have only just gotten underway as Genesis receives guidance from state and federal health officials. She said the company is reaching out to SEIU for its input.
“While details about states’ plans are just becoming clear, we are working quickly and methodically to prepare for this effort and administer the vaccine in our centers,” Mayer said. “We have a robust communication and education initiative underway, which encourages vaccination among staff, residents and families. We are confident that the vaccine development and clinical trial process has been rigorous, and that the FDA will approve only the candidates that merit it.”
The heads of Connecticut’s two associations representing its nursing homes issued a joint statement Saturday encouraging all staff and residents to get the vaccine as soon as it is available.
“Everyone in our long-term care community simply must seize this opportunity of being designated a top priority for the vaccination,” said Mag Morelli, President of LeadingAge Connecticut and Matt Barrett, CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities. “No community has a deeper and more profound understanding of the devastation COVID-19 can bring to vulnerable populations in our state than Connecticut’s long-term care community, and we believe any hesitancy about the safety of the vaccine will be overcome before the first shots are given later this month.”
Late last week, Trinity Health Senior Communities, whose facilities include the Saint Mary Home skilled nursing center in West Hartford, sent a letter to all employees emphasizing the safety of the vaccine, as well as promising to share details about its distribution in its facilities by CVS as soon as they are available.
“We are all in this together,” Trinity administrator Brian Nyberg wrote. “The safety and well-being of our residents and caregivers remain our top priority. We look forward to doing our part in this effort by getting the COVID-19 vaccine and strongly encourage you to join us.”
Zayas said union officials were encouraged that basic information about the rollout was included in a flyer inserted into some workers’ paychecks last week. But much more detailed and intensive communication will be needed, he said, before staff are confident in the vaccine and the way it will be administered.
“We want to be able to tell our members that we have reliable information and that we highly encourage them to take the vaccine,” Zayas said. “If the vaccine has good science behind it, it’s a game-changer compared to what we’re going through now.”