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COVID-19 Vaccines Are Arriving At Nursing Homes, Long-Term Care Facilities

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Residents at nursing homes and assisted living facilities are starting to receive their COVID vaccines. This is a momentous step for a population that has suffered enormously during this pandemic. More than 120,000 deaths are linked to long-term care facilities. Will Stone has this report.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: In New Jersey, it was 103-year-old Mildred Clements, bundled up in a parka and seated in an outdoor tent, who yesterday became the first nursing home resident in her state to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. I'll be quick. There you go. Good job.

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PHIL MURPHY: What we're witnessing here in New Jersey is happening in dozens of other states across the nation.

STONE: That's Governor Phil Murphy right after Clements and several staff members in Old Bridge, N.J., got their first dose.

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MURPHY: Long-term care facilities have been crushed by COVID-19.

STONE: Walgreens and CVS started giving people in long-term care facilities vaccine shots earlier this month. This week, they're expanding to dozens more states. It's a huge moment of relief for the millions who live in long-term care, as well as their families and the staff who've tended to them.

HILDE SAGER: Oh, it feels like Christmas. It does. What a gift.

STONE: That's Hilde Sager. She's executive director at Covenant Living of Northbrook outside of Chicago. Yesterday, a team from Walgreens came to Covenant's skilled nursing facility and gave most of the residents their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

SAGER: One family member, her husband lives here, and she's like, it's giving her hope. It's not just seeing him. It's like, I'll be able to give him a hug.

STONE: Sager says it couldn't come soon enough. Her community made it about eight months with almost no COVID cases until November when the virus swept through Covenant.

SAGER: It was a long seven weeks. You know, one day we had 13 residents test positive in one day.

STONE: About two-thirds of their nursing home residents got infected; some died. Facilities like Sager's aren't necessarily getting a lot of notice about exactly when the vaccine will arrive. She made sure they were ready.

SAGER: They were here today. We're one of the first.

STONE: This crucial phase of the vaccine rollout comes as cases in long-term facilities are spiking nationwide. Last week, the number of deaths linked to long-term care hit nearly 5,000, about double what it was a month ago, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Katie Smith Sloan is CEO of Leading Age, an association of nonprofits that run nursing homes and other elder services.

KATIE SMITH SLOAN: I think it's going amazingly well. Right now, we've got clinics that have been scheduled in all but I think at this point two states.

STONE: Smith Sloan says initial concerns included how to get consent from long-term care residents. Both pharmacy chains resolved that by letting family members give it over the phone. But she says it's important that education for residents keeps pace with the vaccine's rollout.

SMITH SLOAN: There's just a hunger for more information about side effects and about safety of the vaccine. I think there's a lot more that needs to be done and can be done.

STONE: She hopes the vaccine can begin to liberate those who've now spent almost a year away from their families. In Washington state, LaVaughn Therriault got up and danced after getting her shot at the first long-term care community to vaccinate its residents in the state.

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LAVAUGHN THERRIAULT: This shot is the beginning of the end.

STONE: And there are many more in line who hope they can soon say the same.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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