Tampa Bay assisted-living facilities see cases rise. Where’s the vaccine?

Fewer than half of the facilities have received coronavirus vaccines while doses go out to the larger population.
Gail Unold, 75, wears a bandage after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December at Gulf Shore Care Center in Pinellas Park.
Gail Unold, 75, wears a bandage after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December at Gulf Shore Care Center in Pinellas Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 22, 2021|Updated Jan. 22, 2021

Residents and staff of A Country Place, a Town ‘N Country assisted-living facility, were supposed to get their coronavirus shots this week, said Robert Loomis, facility administrator.

But the vaccination scheduling process was going too slow for Loomis. So he called Walgreens, their selected provider, and asked for an earlier date.

His plea worked. The facility received their shots Jan. 16, a week earlier than previously scheduled, because of Loomis’ push.

Related: Florida limits coronavirus vaccines to permanent, seasonal residents

“My frustration was with the way the decisions were made with the shots, about who got it when,” he said. “Weeks passed and we were seeing massive distribution to the public, but not to us.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly has said that residents of long-term care facilities are his top priority for receiving coronavirus vaccines, along with health care workers.

Nearly all of the state’s nursing homes have received their first doses of the vaccine, according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration. But the work of vaccinating assisted-living home residents remains unfinished while the state has pushed ahead to vaccinate another group — those in the general population who are 65 and over.

As of Wednesday, about 44 percent of the state’s 3,137 assisted-living facilities reported that they had offered the voluntary shots to staff and residents, according to agency spokeswoman Tiffany Vause.

CVS and Walgreens pharmacies are administering the vaccinations at long-term care facilities through the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, and the state has contracted the CDR Maguire company to assist them.

All long-term care facilities are expected to receive shots by the end of the month, Vause said.

“While the effort appears to be on a positive trajectory, frustration and confusion remains over the initial rollout of vaccinations in ALFs and why these communities appear to have been prioritized behind nursing homes and many in the general 65-and-older population,” Veronica Catoe, CEO of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said in an email.

Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, agreed that the state should prioritize long-term care residents in its vaccination schedule. Lee’s organization advocates for these residents.

“Facilities have just been a lightning rod for the virus,” he said. “We need to get the vaccine pushed to them. Not just to nursing homes, but also assisted-living.”

In Tampa Bay over the past month, cases in assisted-living and other long-term care facilities have risen by 73 percent, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. As of Jan. 19, Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas and Pasco county facilities had a total of 209 active coronavirus cases among their residents, up from 121 cases a month earlier.

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The state needs to provide more transparency on which long-term care facilities have received the vaccine, said Jeff Johnson, Florida director for AARP.

“I think having some clarity about why they are making the decisions they are is going to go a long way toward helping people feel more confident in the process, Johnson said. “I think they’re lacking that.”

Johnson suggests the state create an online dashboard that shows the progress of vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities.

“Without that, I think that’s where, unfortunately, rumors pick up steam, or anecdotal information is all people have to work with,” he said.

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