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Pinellas hospice aides who care for people in their last days get their own dose of hope

Hospice workers across Florida have had difficulty getting the vaccine, an industry leader said.
Bethany Duquette, a clinical nurse liaison with Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Walgreens pharmacist Thuy Luu, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo.
Bethany Duquette, a clinical nurse liaison with Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Walgreens pharmacist Thuy Luu, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 22

LARGO — Kim Gagnon was a bit anxious as she sat down to get her coronavirus vaccination Thursday from a Walgreens pharmacist. But she knew she had to do it.

Gagnon doesn’t consider herself worrywart, but she’s been concerned throughout the pandemic that she could get the coronavirus and pass it on to the patients she cares for as a hospice social worker.

But when the shot sunk into her skin, the 47-year-old exclaimed, “That’s it?”

Getting the vaccine felt great, Gagnon said, adding “I feel a renewed sense of hope.”

Thursday was a day of relief for Gagnon and 16 of her coworkers at Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care of Pinellas County. They received their first doses of coronavirus vaccine thanks to an offer from Heron House Assisted Living in Largo.

Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care social workers, from left, Jill Jeffries, Tony Hernandez, Mary Keller and Kirby Kelleher, join Leah Rivera, a hair stylist for residents at Heron House Assisted Living, at right, while registering for the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday at the ALF in Largo.
Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care social workers, from left, Jill Jeffries, Tony Hernandez, Mary Keller and Kirby Kelleher, join Leah Rivera, a hair stylist for residents at Heron House Assisted Living, at right, while registering for the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday at the ALF in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hospice workers provide health care and social services in homes, hospitals and care facilities to people in their final days.

Because the workers don’t serve patients at a singular location, however, the company wasn’t able to secure a vaccination clinic for its staff, said Deborah Imbach, director of clinical operations for Seasons.

“Hospice workers are first-line workers, however we were never identified in the first-line distribution in our state,” Imbach said. “So that created a big gap in the coverage for our community.”

So the company got creative.

Hospice administrators reached out to partner care facilities — where hospice aides often do their work — to see if staffers could get shots in their vaccination clinics. That took care of most of Seasons’ hospice staff of about 100, but several staff members still weren’t vaccinated.

“Some hospices have been able to get their immunizations through long-term care facilities,” said Paul A. Ledford, president and CEO of the Florida Hospice and Palliative Care Association. “Some have been able to get them through hospitals. But for the most part, hospice employees have not had access to the immunizations statewide.”

The association has asked the state to include hospice workers in front-line distribution, Ledford said.

Florida has about 20,000 in-home hospice workers — including nurses, aides, social workers and chaplains, Ledford said. Reaching these workers is more of a challenge because they’re not part of a brick and mortar building, he said.

“The vast majority of hospice services are delivered in the home,” Ledford said. “It sort of falls off the radar screen of the folks that are scheduling it. It seems to be an afterthought.”

Seasons’ hospice workers serve clients at Heron House, and the facility offered to have the workers vaccinated, said Heather Palmer, director of marketing for the facility. Interested hospice staffers signed up through Walgreens, which is part of a federal program to vaccinate long-term care facilities. They received vaccines Thursday alongside Heron House residents and staff.

The shot was a dose of long-awaited relief for Kirby Kelleher, a social worker for Seasons, who returned to work last spring after maternity leave. She’s worked throughout the pandemic to care for people, including COVID-19 patients.

“I came back to work in April, which was obviously scary,” she said. “I had a 6-week-old baby and came back to work in health care. It’s definitely been rewarding, but challenging.”

The company’s weekly coronavirus testing and supply of protective equipment made Kelleher feel better, she said. But she still worried about bringing the coronavirus back to her son.

“I’m really excited today,” Kelleher said after she received her first dose of vaccine. It will help her to worry a little less about exposing her baby, A.J. — who is 11 months old.