Aging

Covid Vaccine Rollout Leaves Most Older Adults Confused Where to Get Shots

Over a month into a massive vaccination program, most older Americans report they don’t know where or when they can get inoculated for covid-19, according to a poll released Friday.

Nearly 6 in 10 people 65 and older who have not yet gotten a shot said they don’t have enough information about how to get vaccinated, according to the KFF survey. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Older Americans are not the only ones in the dark about  the inoculation process. About 55% of essential workers —designated by public health officials as being near the front of the line for vaccinations — also don’t know when they can get the shots, the survey found. Surprisingly, 21% of health workers said they are unsure about when they will get vaccinated.

Black and Hispanic adults, as well as those in low-income households, are among the groups struggling most to find vaccine information. Within each of those groups, at least two-thirds said they do not have enough information about when they can get vaccinated, the survey found.

The covid vaccines, which were first distributed in mid-December to health care workers and people living in nursing homes or assisted living centers, are now available for other older adults in most states, though age restrictions vary. Ohio, for example, opened up vaccinations to all residents  80 and older. In Virginia, the minimum age for the second wave of shots is 65. In Indiana, it’s 70; Maryland, 75. Some states, such as Florida and Texas, started vaccinating anyone 65 and up in December, though many states did not begin vaccinating all seniors until January.

Limited doses have left many seniors scrambling to get an inoculation appointment.

For example, at 9 a.m. Thursday, Washington, D.C., opened 2,200 covid vaccine appointment slots for people 65 and older in several hard-hit neighborhoods. Within 20 minutes, they were all filled.

To date, more than 15 million Americans have been vaccinated for covid, which has infected 24 million and killed more than 400,000. The two covid vaccines authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration require two doses either three or four weeks apart.

Despite the rocky rollout of vaccines, two-thirds of respondents were “optimistic” that things will get better.

Sixty-five percent of adults said they believe the distribution of the vaccines is being done fairly, but half of Black adults said they were concerned that the efforts are not adequately considering the needs of the Black community.

The KFF survey of 1,563 adults was conducted Jan. 11-18. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

With Vaccine Delivery Imminent, Nursing Homes Must Make a Strong Pitch to Residents

Imagine this: Your elderly mother, who has dementia, is in a nursing home and COVID-19 vaccines are due to arrive in a week or two.

You think she should be vaccinated, having heard the vaccine is effective in generating an immune response in older adults. Your brother disagrees. He worries that development of the vaccine was rushed and doesn’t want your mother to be among the first people to get it.

These kinds of conflicts are likely to arise as COVID vaccines are rolled out to long-term care facilities across the country.

“This is a highly politicized environment, not only with respect to vaccines but also over the existence of the virus itself,” said Michael Dark, a staff attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “It’s not hard to imagine disputes arising within families.”

About 3 million people — most of them elderly — live in nursing homes, assisted living centers and group homes, where more than 105,000 residents have died of COVID-19. They should be among the first Americans to receive vaccines, along with health care workers, according to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various state plans.

But long-term care residents’ participation in the fastest and most extensive vaccination effort in U.S. history is clouded by a significant complication: More than half have cognitive impairment or dementia.

This raises a number of questions. Will all older adults in long-term care understand the details of the vaccines and be able to consent to getting them? If individual consent isn’t possible, how will families and surrogate decision-makers get the information they need on a timely basis?

And what if surrogates don’t agree with the decision an elderly person has made and try to intervene?

“Imagine that the patient, who has some degree of cognitive impairment, says ‘yes’ to the vaccine but the surrogate says ‘no’ and tells the nursing home, ‘How dare you try to do this?” said Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.

Addressing these issues will occur against a backdrop of urgency. Deaths in long-term care facilities are rising dramatically, with new estimates suggesting that 19 residents die of COVID-19 every hour. With viral outbreaks increasing, already-overwhelmed staffers may not have much time to sit down with residents to answer questions or have conversations with families over the phone.

Meanwhile, CVS and Walgreens, the companies operating vaccine programs at most long-term care facilities, have aggressive timetables. Both companies have said the large-scale rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — the first one that the Food and Drug Administration has authorized — will begin on Dec. 21.But facilities in some states may get supplies earlier. Altogether, there are more than 15,000 nursing homes and nearly 29,000 assisted living residences in the U.S.

At a meeting of the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices early this month, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, acknowledged the agency was “very concerned” that information about vaccines be adequately explained to long-term care residents. “It’s very important for the frail elderly not only to ensure that they are understanding the vaccine that they’re getting but also that their family members do,” she said.

Each vaccine manufacturer will be required to prepare a fact sheet describing what’s known about benefits and risks associated with a vaccine, what’s not known, and making it clear that a vaccine has received “emergency use authorization” from the FDA — a conditional endorsement that falls short of full approval. A second vaccine, from Moderna, is poised to receive this kind of authorization after an FDA meeting on Thursday.

Something that will need to be made clear to residents: while vaccines have been tested on people age 65 and older, those tests did not include individuals living in long-term care, according to Dr. Sara Oliver, a CDC expert.

Some operators have crafted communication plans around the vaccines and already begun intensive outreach. Others may not be well prepared.

Juniper Communities operates 22 senior housing communities (a standalone nursing home, multiple memory care and assisted living facilities, and two continuing care retirement communities) in Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This week, it is planning an hour-long town hall videoconferencing session for residents and families about coronavirus vaccines. Last week, it held a similar event for staffers.

Juniper has contracted with CVS, which is requiring that every resident and staff member fill out consent forms in triplicate before being inoculated. When written consent can’t be obtained directly, verbal consent, confirmed independently, may substitute. Walgreens has similar requirements.

For residents with memory impairment, two Juniper nurses will reach out by phone to whomever has decision-making authority. “One will ask questions and obtain verbal consent; the other will serve as a witness,” said Lynne Katzmann, Juniper’s founder and chief executive officer. Separately, emails, blog posts and prerecorded voice messages about the vaccines have gone out to Juniper residents and staffers, starting at the end of November.

A key message is “we’ve done this before, not at this scale, mind you, and not at this level of import, but we do flu vaccinations annually,” said Katzmann, who plans to be the first Juniper employee to get the Pfizer vaccine when it comes to New Jersey.

At Genesis Healthcare, crucial messages are “these vaccines have been studied thoroughly, tens of thousands of people have received them already, they’re very, very effective, and no steps have been skipped in the scientific process,” said Dr. Richard Feifer, executive vice president and chief medical officer. Genesis, the nation’s largest long-term care company, operates more than 380 nursing homes and assisted living residences in 26 states, with about 45,000 employees and more than 30,000 residents.

Medical directors at each Genesis facility have been scheduling video conferences with families, residents and staffers during the past few weeks to address concerns. They’ve also distributed a letter and a question-and-answer document prepared by the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, in addition to getting information out through closed-circuit TV channels and social media.

In partnership with Brown University researchers, the company will monitor daily the side effects that its long-term care residents experience after getting coronavirus vaccines. Most reactions are expected to be mild or moderate and resolve within a few days. They include fatigue, pain at the injection site, headaches, body aches, fever and, rarely, allergic responses.

Administering the vaccine will occur over three visits for all long-term care facilities. At the first, all Genesis residents and staffers will get inoculations. At the second, three to four weeks later, those same people will get a second dose, and new staffers and residents will get a first dose. At the third, those who still qualify for a second vaccine dose will get one.

What will happen if lots of people experience uncomfortable side effects and employees don’t come in for a couple of days while recovering? “It’s a very difficult problem and we’re making contingency plans to address it,” Feifer said.

And what about continuing care retirement communities — also known as “life plan communities” — where residents in skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living can reside in close proximity?

That’s the case at Bayview in Seattle, which houses 210 residents in a 10-story building. For the moment, independent living residents aren’t on the priority list but “I know there will be a contingent of residents and staff who won’t want to be vaccinated and we’ll see if we can use those vaccines for our independent living people instead,” said Joel Smith, Bayview’s health services administrator.

Logistical challenges are sure to arise, but many operators have an acute sense of mission. “It is critical that we lead the way out of this crisis,” Feifer of Genesis said. “Nursing homes need to go first and be the first ones to address vaccine hesitancy head-on and be successful at generating a high level of acceptance. There is no alternative, no Plan B right now. We have to be successful.”

CVS and Walgreens Under Fire for Slow Pace of Vaccination in Nursing Homes

The effort to vaccinate some of the country’s most vulnerable residents against covid-19 has been slowed by a federal program that sends retail pharmacists into nursing homes — accompanied by layers of bureaucracy and logistical snafus.

As of Thursday, more than 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid vaccines had been allocated to the federal pharmacy partnership, which has deputized pharmacy teams from Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate nursing home residents and workers. Since the program started in some states on Dec. 21, however, they have administered about one-quarter of the doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the country, some nursing home directors and health care officials say the partnership is actually hampering the vaccination process by imposing paperwork and cumbersome corporate policies on facilities that are thinly staffed and reeling from the devastating effects of the coronavirus. They argue that nursing homes are unique medical facilities that would be better served by medical workers who already understand how they operate.

Mississippi’s state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the partnership “has been a fiasco.”

The state has committed 90,000 vaccine doses to the effort, but the pharmacies had administered only 5% of those shots as of Thursday, Dobbs said. Pharmacy officials told him they’re having trouble finding enough people to staff the program.

Dobbs pointed to neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, which he says are vaccinating long-term care residents at four times the rate of Mississippi.

“We’re getting a lot of angry people because it’s going so slowly, and we’re unhappy too,” he said.

Many of the nursing homes that have successfully vaccinated willing residents and staff members are doing so without federal help.

For instance, Los Angeles Jewish Home, with roughly 1,650 staff members and 1,100 residents on four campuses, started vaccinating Dec. 30. By Jan. 11, the home’s medical staff had administered its 1,640th dose. Even the facility’s chief medical director, Noah Marco, helped vaccinate.

The home is in Los Angeles County, which declined to participate in the CVS/Walgreens program. Instead, it has tasked nursing homes with administering vaccines themselves, and is using only Moderna’s easier-to-handle product, which doesn’t need to be stored at ultracold temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. (Both vaccines require two doses to offer full protection, spaced 21 to 28 days apart.)

By contrast, Mariner Health Central, which operates 20 nursing homes in California, is relying on the federal partnership for its homes outside of L.A. County. One of them won’t be getting its first doses until next week.

“It’s been so much worse than anybody expected,” said the chain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Karl Steinberg. “That light at the end of the tunnel is dim.”

Nursing homes have experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. Though they house less than 1% of the nation’s population, nursing homes have accounted for 37% of deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Facilities participating in the federal partnership typically schedule three vaccine clinics over the course of nine to 12 weeks. Ideally, those who are eligible and want a vaccine will get the first dose at the first clinic and the second dose three to four weeks later. The third clinic is considered a makeup day for anyone who missed the others. Before administering the vaccines, the pharmacies require the nursing homes to obtain consent from residents and staffers.

Despite the complaints of a slow rollout, CVS and Walgreens said they’re on track to finish giving the first doses by Jan. 25, as promised.

“Everything has gone as planned, save for a few instances where we’ve been challenged or had difficulties making contact with long-term care facilities to schedule clinics,” said Joe Goode, a spokesperson for CVS Health.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, acknowledged some delays through the partnership, but said that’s to be expected because this kind of effort has never before been attempted.

“There’s a feeling they’ll get up to speed with it and it will be helpful, as health departments are pretty overstretched,” Plescia said.

But any delay puts lives at risk, said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine.

“I’m about to go nuclear on this,” he said. “There should never be an excuse about people not getting vaccinated. There’s no excuse for delays.”

Bringing in Vaccinators

Nursing homes are equipped with resources that could have helped the vaccination effort — but often aren’t being used.

Most already work with specialized pharmacists who understand the needs of nursing homes and administer medications and yearly vaccinations. These pharmacists know the patients and their medical histories, and are familiar with the apparatus of nursing homes, said Linda Taetz, chief compliance officer for Mariner Health Central.

“It’s not that they aren’t capable,” Taetz said of the retail pharmacists. “They just aren’t embedded in our buildings.”

If a facility participates in the federal program, it can’t use these or any other pharmacists or staffers to vaccinate, said Nicole Howell, executive director for Ombudsman Services of Contra Costa, Solano and Alameda counties.

But many nursing homes would like the flexibility to do so because they believe it would speed the process, help build trust and get more people to say yes to the vaccine, she said.

Howell pointed to West Virginia, which relied primarily on local, independent pharmacies instead of the federal program to vaccinate its nursing home residents.

The state opted against the partnership largely because CVS/Walgreens would have taken weeks to begin shots and Republican Gov. Jim Justice wanted them to start immediately, said Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities.

The bulk of the work is being done by more than 60 pharmacies, giving the state greater control over how the doses were distributed, Wright said. The pharmacies were joined by Walgreens in the second week, he said, though not as part of the federal partnership.

“We had more interest from local pharmacies than facilities we could partner them up with,” Wright said. Preliminary estimates show that more than 80% of residents and 60% of staffers in more than 200 homes got a first dose by the end of December, he said.

Goode from CVS said his company’s participation in the program is being led by its long-term care division, which has deep experience with nursing homes. He noted that tens of thousands of nursing homes — about 85% nationally, according to the CDC — have found that reassuring enough to participate.

“That underscores the trust the long-term care community has in CVS and Walgreens,” he said.

Vaccine recipients don’t pay anything out-of-pocket for the shots. The costs of purchasing and administering them are covered by the federal government and health insurance, which means CVS and Walgreens stand to make a lot of money: Medicare is reimbursing $16.94 for the first shot and $28.39 for the second.

Bureaucratic Delays

Technically, federal law doesn’t require nursing homes to obtain written consent for vaccinations.

But CVS and Walgreens require them to get verbal or written consent from residents or family members, which must be documented on forms supplied by the pharmacies.

Goode said consent hasn’t been an impediment so far, but many people on the ground disagree. The requirements have slowed the process as nursing homes collect paper forms and Medicare numbers from residents, said Tracy Greene Mintz, a social worker who owns Senior Care Training, which trains and deploys social workers in more than 100 facilities around California.

In some cases, social workers have mailed paper consent forms to families and waited to get them back, she said.

“The facilities are busy trying to keep residents alive,” Greene Mintz said. “If you want to get paid from Medicare, do your own paperwork,” she suggested to CVS and Walgreens.

Scheduling has also been a challenge for some nursing homes, partly because people who are actively sick with covid shouldn’t be vaccinated, the CDC advises.

“If something comes up — say, an entire building becomes covid-positive — you don’t want the pharmacists coming because nobody is going to get the vaccine,” said Taetz of Mariner Health.

Both pharmacy companies say they work with facilities to reschedule when necessary. That happened at Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehabilitation in Chico, California, where a clinic was pushed back a day because the facility was awaiting covid test results for residents. Melissa Cabrera, who manages the facility’s infection control, described the process as streamlined and professional.

In Illinois, about 12,000 of the state’s roughly 55,000 nursing home residents had received their first dose by Sunday, mostly through the CVS/Walgreens partnership, said Matt Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association.

While Hartman hopes the pharmacies will finish administering the first round by the end of the month, he noted that there’s a lot of “headache” around scheduling the clinics, especially when homes have outbreaks.

“Are we happy that we haven’t gotten through round one and West Virginia is done?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

KHN correspondent Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.