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County-Run Nursing Homes Say Nearly 70 Percent Of Staff Have Signed Up For COVID Vaccines

Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA
A two bedroom unit at Kane's Glen Hazel.

The coronavirus vaccine is coming to the Kane Community Living Centers, which have lost a total of 46 residents to COVID-19 this year.

As part of a federal program, CVS pharmacists will administer the Pfizer vaccine at the four county-owned nursing homes. More than 120 skilled-nursing facilities across Pennsylvania are taking part in the free Operation Warp Speed initiative.

Nursing home residents and staff, including non-medical employees, are being prioritized for the virus due to the staggeringly high number of fatalities that have occurred in these facilities since the start of the pandemic. More than half of Pennsylvania’s 15,000 COVID-19 deaths are among nursing home residents.

This is partly because this population is more medically frail. Also, the virus tends to spread most rampantly in communal living settings where physical distancing is difficult. This is why public health experts say correctional facilities and homeless shelters should also be prioritized for vaccinations.

Though Kane has not permitted visitors or community outings for months, keeping the virus out of the facilities has been difficult. County data show that 263 residents and 223 staff members have tested positive for the virus.

“Our employees are like everyone else in the county. They come in contact with people that have [coronavirus] and become infected," said Kane Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mario Fatigati, who added that he hoped the vaccinations would create a less "fearful environment."

While no timeline was given as to when family and friends would again be allowed to visit Kane centers, administrators say infection-prevention protocols, like masking, will remain in place. That’s in part because not all Kane residents and employees will decide to get vaccinated, despite ampleevidencethat itissafe.

Some who have recieved the vaccine experience flu-like symptoms -- similar to the shingles vaccination. On extremely rare occasions, a person could have a severe allergic reaction that can be treated with epinephrine. But experts agree the benefits of the COVID vaccine far outweigh the risks.

“The [staff] who may be hesitant ... we will go back to them and try to provide whatever information they need to change that 'no' into a 'yes,'” said Dennis Biondo, Kane’s executive director.

Biondo said nearly 70% of the more than 900 Kane employees have signed up to get vaccinated, but that number might increase to as much as 90 percent.

Though Pfizer reports that its vaccine efficacy is 94% among adults who are older than age 65, it's a bit too soon to know if this will hold for nursing home populations. In general, elderly patients are less likely to have a robust immune response to vaccinations.For this reason, vaccinating staff is essential.

Staff are currently reaching out to the families of the centers' more than 700 residents -- families which in many cases have medical power of attorney — to determine who will be vaccinated.

“I know that some of the residents or their family members are asking guidance from their own [primary care provider] or their own attending physicians,” said Biondo.

In addition to staff and residents, medical contractors that frequent the facilities — such as optometrists or physical and occupational therapists — will be offered vaccinations as well.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.