Some assisted living facilities still waiting for COVID-19 vaccine

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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — COVID-19 vaccine distributions have already started in nursing home facilities across the state, but assisted care residents and staff are still waiting their turn.

According to state health officials, residents of long-term care (LTC) facilities are being vaccinated through a federal program that is partnering with CVS, Walgreens and a few other pharmacies, such as Mac’s Pharmacy.

However, many family members with loved ones in assisted care living facilities, and assisted care living facility owners/directors, question why they still haven’t received the vaccine.

Tommy Spencer, owner of Patriot Hills Assisted Living, said he hasn’t even heard of a date for when to expect their residents and staff to get vaccinated.

“Our families have been calling and calling and say, ‘OK when are you going to get this? When are you going to get this?’ And it’s frustrating to me to tell them I don’t know,” Spencer said.

Spencer said he wasn’t even sure who his pharmacy partner is, although he believes it might be Walgreens.

He said he hasn’t been able to get any answers.

“I went in on Walgreens (website) this morning and it said, ‘we are currently doing the nursing homes right now, and then we’ll get to you as soon as we’re done,'” Spencer said.

Owners or directors of other facilities across East Tennessee received a date Monday morning, but it wasn’t for any time soon.

Kelly Lohman with BeeHive Homes of Knoxville said she was told a clinic would be held at her facility March 15.

Pat Gengozian, a retired dental hygienist, said her mother’s assisted living facility in Oak Ridge received an email Monday morning stating they could receive vaccinations at the end of January.

“The projected timeline was for the end of January, subject to change. So, you know, end of January, we’re talking three-plus weeks. A lot of elderly people can die in that time,” Gengozian said.

Both of Gengozian’s parents lived at the facility.

However, her father-in-law, Dr. Nazareth Gengozian, got COVID-19 and later died from complications.

Gengozian said her father-in-law kicked COVID-19, but said he was too weak afterward.

He died on Dec. 23.

“Since this has become such a problem, and and the COVID is so rampant in our community, I told mother I don’t want anybody in her room but me. So I go over 3 to 4 times a day,” Gengozian said.

Gengozian is allowed at her mother’s facility because she has a medical background and learned the protocols.

She knows other families aren’t as lucky, which is why she believes assisted care facilities should be receiving the vaccine before the general public.

“Skilled nursing facilities usually have seniors that are even more vulnerable than assisted living. But, assisted living is still a communal senior community and they’re still isolated in their rooms,” Gengozian said.

What frustrates both her and Spencer is seeing health departments open vaccine distribution to anyone 75 and older, even though assisted living residents still haven’t been vaccinated.

“Most of them have problems, or they wouldn’t be living in assisted living. And these people can’t make an appointment and go out and get a shot because they’re locked in their rooms,” Gengozian said.

“We’re hearing people are getting COVID vaccines in Knoxville. You know, all they have to do is show up at the Expo Center and get their vaccines. We’re in the tier 1 group and we haven’t heard anything. So we’re very frustrated,” Spencer said.

According to Dr. Morgan Honeycutt, Director of Pharmacy at Mac’s LTC Pharmacy Solutions, the issue is LTC facilities have had to partner with the federal program, so they can’t simply ask for more doses from local health departments.

Honeycutt said pharmacies get the doses from the state health department after receiving the vaccine from the federal department of health; the state then details which facilities Mac’s Pharmacy administers the vaccine to.

He said that’s how it worked last week with their first shipment.

“If I have the vaccine show up tomorrow morning, I can be in communities in the afternoon taking care of residents. So, we’re just waiting to hear if we’re going to get anymore,” Morgan said.

According to CVS spokespeople, the pharmacy chain was also told by the state which facilities receive the vaccines first.

“The number of vaccine doses and the vaccine made available to CVS Health will be determined by the states and federal government. The LTC facilities chose who they wanted to partner with in regard to who administers the vaccine. CVS Health works with the facility on the scheduling,” Tara Burke said in an email.

Gengozian tried to reach out to the state health department, the governor’s office and local officials about making sure assisted care residents are vaccinated before allowing the general senior public to get vaccinated.

Both Gengozian and Spencer said staff at assisted care facilities know how to administer vaccines. So, in order to distribute the vaccine quicker to their residents staff would gladly learn how to do so with the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Most of the assisted living have nurses on staff, so they’re very capable of doing the inoculation so, they can do the vaccine theirself. All they gotta do is bring us the stuff and bring, tell us what we’re supposed to do and we’ll be happy to do that for them,” Spencer said.

They just wanted to get the word out, hoping someone at the state level could do something about the issue to keep their residents safe.

Not only safe, but no more isolation.

“We’ve actually lost residents that passed away, one as early as the day before yesterday, that has not seen their family in a year. It’s very frustrating,” Spencer said.

The Tennessee Dept. of Health sent out an update about the latest efforts to vaccinate LTC facility residents and staff Monday afternoon.

Shelley Walker, Communications Director for TDOH, also reiterated the state started vaccinating highest acuity level (sickest) facilities first.

“Tennessee activated the process last week to have assisted living facilities and residential homes for the aged scheduled through the federal pharmacy partnership.

Currently, the state has allocated more than 127,000 vaccines to pharmacies to vaccinate LTCFs, and tens of thousands of additional doses will continue being transferred to pharmacies over the next two-three weeks. The majority of LTCFs in Tennessee are in the federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens, and the remainder are contracted with local pharmacies. Tennessee is working to partner LTCFs who did not sign up  through the federal partnership with local pharmacies.”

Shelley Walker

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