Tampa Bay care facilities prep for vaccine rollout, but who will choose to get it?

Long-term care facility residents are among the first in line to receive coronavirus vaccines, but that doesn’t mean all residents and staff will get it.
On July 27, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
On July 27, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) [ HANS PENNINK | AP ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020|Updated Dec. 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Mealtime at Grand Villa of St. Petersburg, a 192-bed assisted-living facility, has become the latest arena for coronavirus vaccine discussion — and debate.

Scott Elsass, the facility’s administrator, said he arrives at the home’s dining room 30 minutes before each meal and flips the TV channel to CNN in hopes of facilitating a healthy discussion. He’s tried to answer as many resident questions as possible in recent weeks about the vaccines.

Some wonder whether the injection will feel icy cold if it’s kept in dry ice, Elsass said. Some are “pretty adamant that they’re not going to take the vaccine,” he said, or try to convince their table mates not to get it.

“Most of the time, what people are saying is they would rather have the symptoms for 36 hours versus having the symptoms and not knowing if it’s going to take them out,” he said. “And basically, how they don’t want to go out that way.”

Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across Tampa Bay are preparing for the arrival of coronavirus vaccines. But they don’t know when they’ll get the vaccines or who will want to get one. The state will not require residents or staffers of the homes to get vaccinated, but members of both groups have a big decision to make as the area’s virus caseload continues to rise.

As of September, Florida had 145,563 residents and 222,541 staff members in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to the state Department of Health. The virus had killed more than 19,000 Floridians by Dec. 3, and about 40 percent of them were residents of long-term care facilities, a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found.

Three residents of Grand Villa of St. Petersburg have died from coronavirus-related causes, according to the Florida Department of Health. The facility had one staffer positive for the coronavirus on the state’s Dec. 8 report.

In spite of the uncertainties, care facilities are pressing forward with vaccination plans.

The federal government required facilities to sign up with Walgreens or CVS through a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pharmacy partnership program for the vaccinations, said Kristen Knapp, spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group representing nursing homes.

This portal system allows pharmacies and facilities to communicate directly, she said. As of Wednesday, all of the association’s nursing homes were signed up. Each facility was allowed to select a provider so it could choose the closest pharmacy or one with whom it already had a relationship.

The vaccinations will be free from either pharmacy, Knapp said.

Pharmacists will come to each facility and set up an immunization clinic once the vaccine is available, Knapp said. The state has said that healthcare workers and long-term care residents will be the first to receive the doses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week that he expects the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the coronavirus vaccine from the drug maker Pfizer this week. An approval decision on the vaccine from drug maker Moderna is expected next week.

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Walgreens indicated in a phone call last week with Florida’s long-term care facilities and state agencies that its pharmacists may begin to administer the vaccines on Dec. 21, Knapp said.

“However, given that this is a priority, it may come sooner,” she said. “We’re telling our facilities to prepare for sooner rather than later. It’s best to be ready now.”

Facilities need to provide a space that is well-ventilated and large enough to allow for social distancing, she said. In addition, they need to designate a staff member who will work with the pharmacy.

While the vaccines will not be required, “taking the vaccine may give our residents and our facilities the opportunity to return to some sense of normalcy,” Knapp said.

Facilities also are putting together rosters of residents who need a guardian or loved one to consent to a vaccination on their behalf, Knapp said. So-called proxies make healthcare decisions for those with ailments such as Alzheimers’ and other forms of dementia.

Grand Villa of St. Petersburg had its first call with CVS on Monday, Elsass said. When vaccines are available, pharmacists will administer them over three days in the facility’s clinic and come back to administer a required second dose. The facility does not know how many doses of the vaccines it will receive or when they will arrive.

Staffers who choose to receive the vaccines will receive them in the facility’s clinic as well, according to facility spokeswoman Sandi Poreda. About 60 percent of Grand Villa of St. Petersburg’s 100-person staff have said they’ll likely get the vaccines, Elsass said, adding that some may change their minds as the vaccination date arrives.

“There’s a lot of the people that are saying they’re gonna wait, and it’s not because of access,” he said.

So what is it?

“Fear of the unknown,” Elsass answered.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.

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