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Coronavirus Vaccines Are Coming To Nursing Homes Soon, But Family Visits Likely Remain Months Away

A worker at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City prepares doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14.
Truman Medical Center
A worker at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City prepares doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14.

COVID-19 poses such dire risks to older people in nursing homes that even vaccines won’t guarantee a quick end to their pandemic isolation.

Tens of thousands of workers and residents at Kansas long-term care facilities will get vaccinated over the next three months. But families aching to visit after such a long separation may not have easy access to their loved ones for several more months at least.

“We will not be clicking our fingers and returning to normal,” said William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University. “There is not a silver bullet.”

Even for young people, the new vaccines don’t offer a 100% guarantee against contracting coronavirus. And the shots may be less effective for older people.

That means nursing homes still need to be cautious by insisting workers and others who enter their buildings continue to don masks and diligently screen any visitors for the virus or possible signs of it.

As the broader public gets vaccinated and community transmission slows, that will lower the risks that even asymptomatic family members can unwittingly pose. Reaching that point will take several months, at least.

The vaccine rollout at nursing homes

Giving shots to tens of thousands of Kansans as fast as possible is a massive undertaking that comes when health care workers already find themselves battling exhaustion.

But they say this feels like a new phase in a fight they can win.

Lindsborg Community Hospital in central Kansas put its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine into a container labeled “Box of Hope.”

Pharmacists share that sense of coming relief.

“It’s been a really long year for all of us,” Nate Burrell said. He’s a pharmacist who oversees 18 pharmacies for CVS Health in the Kansas City metro and as far west as Salina. “But I think we all feel kind of energized now.”

CVS Health and Walgreens will help carry out a federal initiative to get the sometimes logistically tricky job of moving temperature-sensitive vaccines to nursing and housing facilities that predominantly serve people over the age of 65.

CVS’ pharmacy teams start fanning out on Monday, and must make three trips to each of the 360 sites they’ll visit. (People need two doses — administered three or four weeks apart, depending on which brand of vaccine they get.) By the end of three months, they’ll have vaccinated up to 40,000 people.

“You think about the disproportionate number of really severe cases or deaths that have occurred in these nursing facilities,” Burrell said. “Quite honestly, I don’t think we can wait to get started.”

Kansas has seen more than 500 outbreaks of the virus in long-term care since the pandemic began. Those clusters — at least two cases each, but sometimes infecting dozens of patients and workers at a single facility — have killed nearly 1,000 people.

That makes such outbreaks the single biggest source of pandemic-related deaths in Kansas, where nearly 2,500 people have died since March.

When the virus surged across Kansas this fall, it found its way into even very rural facilities. Now, most Kansas nursing homes have had cases of COVID-19 among their residents.

The rollout to the wider community

Pharmacies have been preparing for weeks — even months — for the massive vaccination effort. And still, they need all the hands they can get.

More pharmacists. More pharmacy technicians.

Just taking care of nursing homes involves a lot of skilled workers spending many hours on the road and in the field.

Once community-wide immunization starts, perhaps this spring, pharmacists foresee huge demand.

CVS Health has been ramping up to administer as many as 25 million shots per month at about 10,000 pharmacies nationwide.

Each state sets priorities for vaccination within their boundaries until supplies become widely available. (You can read the Kansas plan here, and find weekly updates on progress here.)

Kansas kicked off its vaccine rollout with those most at risk of contracting the disease, such as health care workers who face COVID-19 exposure on the job.

The pharmacists who will give shots at nursing homes hope to get vaccinated themselves soon. To enter long-term care facilities, they will undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear protective gear.

Other essential workers and people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 also rank high on the state’s priority for vaccine access until supplies increase enough to accommodate the wider public.

Vaccine background

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has OK’d two vaccines so far for emergency use.

It greenlighted Pfizer’s version on Dec. 11 and gave the go-ahead for Moderna’s on Dec. 18.

Kansas got nearly 24,000 doses of the Pfizer version within days. By the end of a week, vaccination had gotten underway in all but a handful of the state’s 105 counties.

Gov. Laura Kelly says nearly 50,000 doses of the Moderna product should arrive this week.

Unlike Pfizer’s version, which requires extra-cold temperatures that make transportation and storage more difficult, Moderna’s holds up in normal freezers that the average doctor’s office or pharmacy would have on hand.

The medical news outlet STAT has published a side-by-side comparison of the two vaccines, but reports that limited supplies mean anyone offered shots at this point shouldn’t expect to get a choice between the two.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.