FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – They were supposed to be first in line. Now they’re just like everyone else.
Residents of long-term care facilities were initially told they would have priority, along with health care workers, for the COVID-19 vaccine. They hoped that health officials and national-chain pharmacies would swoop in to their facilities to vaccinate residents and rescue them from almost a year of quarantine.
Most are still waiting, and they’re not happy about it. As of last week, according to self reports from the state’s facilities, residents and staff at only 34 of 2,400 assisted living facilities and about a third of Florida’s 700 nursing homes had received vaccines.
“It is outrageous that the vulnerable elderly in assisted living facilities are not being given priority over the general over-65 population,” said Janet Rubinson, whose mother, 94, is in a Greenacres facility and her mother-in-law, also 94, is in a Delray Beach assisted living center. “I am very concerned that my mother and my mother-in-law, who are in two separate ALFs in Palm Beach County, have no idea when they will get vaccinated.”
Carolyn North, of Delray Beach, wondered the same thing about her parents, Verne Kelley, 97, and Patricia Kelley, 85. They live at Stratford Court of Boca Pointe independent living in Boca Raton.
Seeing the slow pace of the vaccination rollout in senior living centers like theirs, she got her parents appointments for next week at the Markham Park vaccination site in Sunrise.
“My parents need the vaccine,” North said. “I didn’t care how it happened. I needed to make it happen for them.”
Not everyone has a son or daughter to arrange an appointment. Those who have been fending for themselves have encountered bureaucratic and technical snafus, including hourslong lines, crashed websites and jammed phone lines, as they try to get the life-saving injections.
Long-term care facility residents had thought they had the highest priority after a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee recommended on Dec. 20 that they and health care workers become the first to receive the vaccine.
Across Florida, more than 8,100 long-term care residents and staff have died of the coronavirus, about 38% of the state’s total deaths.
Gov. Ron DeSantis also vowed to make long-term care residents a top priority, holding a news conference in mid-December at a nursing home outside Fort Lauderdale where 90 residents became among the nation’s first to be vaccinated.
But on Dec. 23, DeSantis issued an executive order that made anyone 65 and older eligible for the first vaccine rounds, creating an enormous pool of older residents now battling for a place in line. Although Florida has enough vaccine for 568,000 people, the state is home to 4.5 million older adults, including 340,000 in Broward County, 400,000 in Palm Beach County, and 465,000 in Miami-Dade County.
After getting lots of pushback about the widened age group and insufficient quantity of shots, DeSantis on Monday vowed to send extra personnel to long-term care facilities to help with the effort. He also said the state would convert some COVID-19 testing sites to vaccination sites and activate contracts for an additional 1,000 nurses.
While the Florida Department of Health has taken charge of vaccination clinics operated in the counties, Walgreens and CVS Health have been hired to administer the vaccine program at Florida’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Both are facing criticism.
“So far, to be quite honest, I think the federal contract on the long-term-care facilities has been a mediocre experience,” Jared Moskowitz, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, the state’s top official overseeing the vaccine distribution, told the Orlando Sentinel.
“If the federal contract is not getting the job done, the state will step in and finish skilled-nursing and long-term care facilities,” he added.
CVS defended its vaccine program.
“It’s important to remember that we run seasonal flu clinics in thousands of these locations every year, which means our health care professionals are very familiar with this population,” spokeswoman Tara Burke said. “We are in regular communication with our facility partners and they can contact us with any questions or concerns they have.”
Sinai Residences, a nursing home and retirement community west of Boca Raton with an average age of 87, chose Walgreens for its vaccination program because many of its residents have prescriptions there, executive director Jay Mikosch said.
Sinai waited almost two months to get a date, he said.
“We waited as patiently as we could,” Mikosch said. “We were diligent with follow-up. We called every other day.”
Mikosch said the center began vaccinating 41 residents and 77 staffers on Dec. 28. Vaccines for the remaining 300 residents are scheduled for Jan. 14.
Connie Packman, 87, is unwilling to wait. A resident of Five Star Senior Living in Boca Raton, she said her facility does not yet have a vaccination date. So she sent an email to the president of CVS Health, Larry Merlo, and was astonished to get a response from one of his staffers the next day.
“Dear Mr. Merlo,” she wrote. “I am desperately looking for an answer as to when my assisted living facility in Boca Raton will receive the vaccine. We have filled out all the necessary paper work you require but nobody gives us an answer as to when.”
She said the CVS administrator told her she and her husband, Stanley, 90, can get their shots at 11 a.m. Monday.
Burke declined to comment on the CVS call to Packman, saying: “We remain committed to solving any issues as part of the important role we are playing to help end the pandemic.”
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