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Vaccines Are Coming To Nursing Homes, But Some Staff Remain Hesitant

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio

As the first round of COVID-19 vaccination clinics at Connecticut nursing homes came to a close Friday, state and public health officials said there remains hesitancy among some nursing home workers to take the vaccine. 

On Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont said early data from the state’s initial rollout of vaccines at nursing homes indicate only 40% to 50% of nursing home staff chose to get the shot.

Lita Orefice with the Connecticut Department of Public Health told members of a panel charged with reviewing the state’s response to COVID-19 at nursing homes that vaccine hesitancy among some front-line caregivers is “very real.”

“We’re not seeing as much for residents,” Orefice said. “But certainly for staff. And long-term care staff are not unique in that. I think we’re seeing that among health care workers generally as well. So, there is concern.”

Numbers from the governor’s office last week outlined vaccine “uptake” rates between 50% and 70% for health care workers statewide. 

But while some caregivers have taken a pause, nursing home residents have been much more eager to get the shot. 

Kevin O’Connell, CEO at Geer Village Senior Community, which runs a nursing home, pharmacy and assisted living facility in North Canaan, said one possible reason might be historical memory of the older generation. 

He cited the development of the polio vaccine in the mid-20th century.

“Nowadays, no one knows anybody who had polio, and there’s a reason why,” O’Connell said. “It’s because the people that are of the age, living in our nursing homes -- they all stood up. They took the vaccine for polio. And that disease was beaten down and wiped out.”

COVID-19 has killed nearly 4,100 residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Connecticut. That accounts for roughly 65% of the state’s total deaths tied to COVID-19. 

Since June, at least four employees of long-term care facilities have died due to complications from COVID-19.

During the first round of vaccination clinics, Lamont’s office said between 85% and 100% of all nursing home residents opted to get the vaccine. 

At Geer, O’Connell said “up to 80 percent of the staff in the nursing home and almost all of the residents” were vaccinated on Jan. 5. 

At the assisted living facility, which ran its clinic last week, “we probably got about 60 percent of the employees and almost all of the residents,” he said. “For the most part, we’re really pleased with the acceptance of our staff and residents to getting this vaccine.”

But O’Connell said it’s been “a real struggle” to get to that point. 

“There’s so much misinformation that you can see through social media in so many different ways,” O’Connell said. “I’m actually kind of shocked across the country, how many front-line workers don’t trust it.”

To combat the misinformation and answer questions about potential side effects, O’Connell said Geer held educational Zoom meetings for weeks to answer workers’ questions about the shot. 

They also offered a $200 check to each employee who got it. 

“It was a recognition of how hard they’ve been working and an encouragement to accept the vaccine,” O’Connell said. “The worst thing that could possibly happen is this vaccine rolls out and we don’t get 60 to 70 percent of our residents and employees to accept it. Because if we don’t, then you just can’t build up the immunity.”

Pedro Zayas, a spokesperson for employee union SEIU 1199 New England, which represents workers at around 70 nursing homes in Connecticut, said it’s been complicated to schedule shots for everyone in an industry that runs multiple 24/7 shifts. 

Zayas said education was also a challenge and that “based on expert advice and in consultation with the Services Employees International Union, 1199 fully endorses vaccination and encourages members to take the vaccine as soon as it becomes available to them.”

DPH’s Orefice expressed hope that more front-line workers will choose to get the shot and that workers who have already chosen to get vaccinated will motivate others as further vaccination clinics roll out in the coming weeks.

“Some workers … they want to see what happens at the first round,” Orefice said. “So we might see a bigger uptick when the second clinic comes around.”

In a statement, a DPH spokesperson said the agency will continue to work with nursing home administrators and unions to educate workers about “the safety, efficacy and benefits of the vaccine for the staff, their families and their residents.”