With long-term care facilities especially hard-hit by coronavirus fatalities, Utah leaders are trying to make sure they’re among the first to get the vaccine.
Roughly 40% of all COVID-19 deaths in Utah were individuals in long-term care facilities, according to Gov. Spencer Cox in his first weekly update as governor on Friday, which is why those in assisted living centers and nursing homes have been among top-priority distribution.
The vaccine’s rollout in assisted living and nursing homes is more than protection against the virus, it’s giving a taste of normal life once again, according to administrators of the facilities.
“We did it more as a group activity,” said Brian Harrison, who co-owns BeeHive Homes of Logan with his wife, Tami, of the vaccinations residents and staff received before New Year’s Eve. “We all came out and sat around the table and laughed and joked, and also a couple of our residents pulled funny faces when they were getting their shots, you know, intentionally.”
As a small facility with only four residents currently, the Harrisons said they have been able to allow for distanced visitations for residents throughout the pandemic. They avoided some of the state’s more strict lockdown measures, Tami said, in large part due to the small numbers of the operation.
At one point, Brian said families were so concerned about not being able to see loved ones during the pandemic that the home was down to one resident.
“You start hearing on the news and everything about the lockdown facilities, you know, that nobody’s able to come in and visit,” he said. “So then they quit bringing their residents to the homes. They’re just keeping them home, where they can care for them, and the only problem with that is the caregiver burnout part.”
Bryan Reiber, whose grandmother is in a home elsewhere in the valley, was on the other side of that coin.
“They’re very isolated,” the 32-year-old said of the facility his loved one is in, though the family asked for it not to be identified. “There have been some times when like a worker there came down with COVID and so everything got totally shut down. The residents, like my grandma, weren’t allowed to leave their room or eat lunch in the common area. We’ve got this already isolated population to begin with just being further isolated.”
While Rieber, his wife and their newborn were able to do window-visits with his grandmother throughout the summer, the visits became less feasible with the freezing temperatures and winter weather — especially when combined with his grandmother’s macular eye condition and being hard-of-hearing, making it difficult to connect even over the phone and through glass.
Though it’s a larger operation, the Sunshine Terrace Foundation tries to use the same “home and family”-based approach as BeeHive Homes, and finding ways to keep residents from feeling the loneliness and isolation while ensuring patient safety “has been a challenge,” according to Laura Roberts, the business office manager.
Some of the ways the activities committee has engaged residents include daily music therapy done in individual rooms rather than as a group, and — one of the staff’s favorites — through “hallway bingo,” said Amy Anderson, Sunshine Terrace’s public relations director and spiritual counselor, “where they would give everybody their cards, and they would go up and down the hallway to call out numbers, so people could still still play bingo.”
Roberts said it’s just one way Sunshine Terrace — like all facilities — has had to adapt.
“Everybody’s just really gotten creative on how we can still reach out and participate (with residents) and make them feel like they’re still a part of our own little community going on here, even though everybody’s in their room,” she said. “As a whole, I think we kept everybody happy — or as happy as possible with the restrictions on our loved ones.”
‘A day of hope’
As more and more people become inoculated against the virus, “it’s opening doors, in a literal sense,” Roberts said.
“Everything’s been on lockdown… and the doors to each one of the wings have been closed,” she said on Friday as the facility received its first doses of the vaccine. “But the doors were open today, and there was light shining through from one of the wings.”
As residents received their shots, Anderson said the overall feeling was that it was “a day of hope.”
Roberts added “we’re not quite through it yet, but I think everybody is kind of stepping forward, eagerly and cautiously but anxiously looking forward to when the doors are open and residents are back visiting with each other, and they’re out eating lunch out on the patio.”
“That’s what the vaccine is doing for us,” she said. “All of us right now, it’s just given us a glimmer of light and just hope for some normalcy again. It’s definitely exciting.”
As of Monday, more than half of the long-term care facilities in the state have hosted their first vaccination clinics for workers and residents to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Of the 102 clinics that have reported data to the Utah Department of Health, “6,371 doses (have been) delivered and 86% of residents and 58% of staff vaccinated,” a spokesperson wrote to The Herald Journal.
Those numbers do not include facilities which were vaccinated by private physicians, local health departments or hospitals.
Another bright spot is the governor’s executive order allowing for all Utahns 70 years of age or older to qualify for the vaccine by Monday.
“It’s on all of us, though, as individuals to make those sacrifices, and what’s so frustrating is that we are so close again, knowing now that Grandma and Grandpa, anyone over the age of 70, over the next few weeks will be able to get their vaccine,” he said in Friday’s update. “Let’s keep them alive during this time. We can do this just a few more months, and we’ll be there.”
Josh Greer, with the Bear River Health Department, said interest among the 70-and-ups has already sparked in the area and his office fields calls every day from those wondering when the vaccine will be released to the public.
“We’re going to have that information available on our website, with the ability to sign up for these clinics,” he told The Herald Journal on Monday. “I know for this population, that might not be the easiest thing in the world to do, so we’re encouraging them to do that or to reach out to a family member or friend that can help them navigate the technology so we can get them signed up to these clinics.”
Appointments for vaccinations through the health department’s clinics — which will begin next week — are not available by phone. As Gov. Cox said in his briefing, there will be limited doses of the vaccine available and appointments will be imperative to reserve a slot.
The Bear River Health Department’s latest information on the vaccine is available at https://brhd.org/covid-19-vaccine-information.