Claps, whoops and cheers erupted outside the Franklin Woods Center in Rossville on Wednesday after three staffers and two residents volunteered to get vaccinated during a brief news conference attended by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
The five participants were the first among the state’s nursing home community to get vaccinated.
“Yeah, man, perfect!” yipped Brian Klausmeyer, the center’s executive director, after he got his shot.
”That was it?” laughed Davenia Kemp, Franklin Woods’ geriatric nurse assistant, after the needle went in. She’d kept herself up all night, anticipating pain, discomfort or worse.
Hogan said nursing homes have been the state’s priority since the pandemic reached Maryland. About half of the state’s deaths have been linked to nursing homes, where some residents live out the rest of their lives or rehabilitate after an illness or medical procedure.
“Here we are, with the holiday approaching, and it’s a tough time for the families and the staff, and all their families, when we’re not able to spend as much time with our loved ones in the nursing homes,” Hogan said. “But it is a hopeful day with these vaccines, these vials of hope, that are now arriving across the state.”
Tens of thousands of nursing home residents and staff are in the first priority group, along with more than 150,000 hospital workers, in a plan laid out by state health officials. Other at-risk health care workers, such as first responders, are in that “1A” group and health departments have begun receiving doses to cover them. Hogan has suggested there are more than 300,000 people in this category.
Then the state will move on to “1B,” other people at high risk of severe COVID-19, a group that could include seniors and people with serious health conditions.
The state’s plan is to then vaccinate other essential workers and people at moderately higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19. The general population will be last, and the process is expected to take months; there are more than 6 million Marylanders. Tests to determine appropriate doses for children are just getting underway.
So far the state has been allotted 191,075 doses of vaccine by federal officials, one vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech and another from Moderna.
Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said all hospitals in the state have or will receive vaccines this week, and if more doses arrive next week as anticipated, that should be enough to cover all of the hospital workers.
A new state website reports that as of Wednesday morning, almost 10,500 Marylanders had been given their first shot. Each will need a second.
The 1A group should be covered shortly and the state should be able to move on to the 1B group in mid-January, estimated Tinglong Dai, an associate professor of operations management and business analytics in Johns Hopkins Carey Business School who has been monitoring vaccine distribution.
“The vaccination is overall smooth,” he said. “But big and small issues will surface once more doses become available. Maryland, as the rest of the country, has to think ahead of the time and plan for what we are going to face in three or four months from now. Starting from around April, we may have a lot of doses, but many people would be hesitant to take them. This is the right time to start the vaccination campaign and get people to register for COVID vaccination.”
Dai said the state should set up an online waiting list and allow people to see their position in the queue. He also said there should be more coordination with health care providers and pharmacies to share real-time inventory, especially as production accelerates and other vaccines are authorized next year — Pfizer announced Wednesday that it would double the doses available in the United States to 200 million, enough for 100 million people, in the second half of 2021.
Dai said so far vaccine hesitancy does not seem to be an issue.
The faith community has been helping to educate people about the vaccine to increase uptake, especially in hard-hit African American communities where skepticism and mistrust of the health care system runs high after mistreatment over many years.
The Rev. Derrick DeWitt, pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in West Baltimore, was first to get the vaccine Wednesday in the church’s Maryland Baptist Aged Home. He said he wanted to show his support for vaccination.
He said there was hesitancy among residents, but he expected most, about 23, to get vaccinated along with about 40 employees. The facility has taken “extreme” steps to prevent infections and has not recorded any during the pandemic as COVID-19 has ravaged other centers.
“It took some coaching and educating,” DeWitt said. “There is hesitancy, and couple that with all the misinformation and the current political climate, we’ve had a lot of challenges to overcome for people to be willing.”
Still DeWitt is thankful to be among the first nursing homes to receive doses. He said the state could have chosen the “hot spots” over a place like theirs with a strong safety record. He said that has come at a price for workers and residents who have not had in-person family visits in months.
“Regardless of what people say about the vaccine, we’ve seen the damage this virus can do,” he said. “I would guess the vaccine is better than the virus. I took it, and I’d advise anybody to take it.”
Federal officials lined up the pharmacy companies CVS and Walgreens to give vaccinations to nursing home residents in about a dozen states. Yoandrée Pierre-Jacques, district leader at CVS Health, said the pharmacies were well suited because they routinely vaccinate residents throughout the year and have the infrastructure and training to handle the vaccines, scheduling and patient health records.
She wouldn’t speculate on when CVS would launch public vaccinations.
At the nursing homes, Hogan said the staffs will work through the holiday season “until we get every single nursing home resident vaccinated.”
Still, doses are rolling out slowly and Hogan and Joe DeMattos, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, urged patience.
”It is going to take time to deploy this vaccine,” DeMattos said. “Simultaneously, we’re continuing the fight against this virus, and now is not the time to lose focus.”
The state has reported almost 258,000 cases and more than 5,400 deaths from COVID-19, and the virus continues to infect people at a rapid pace.
DeMattos said Wednesday’s vaccinations mark the first step back to normalcy for some of the state’s most at-risk populations. The association aims for 100% of residents and at least 85% of staffers to get the vaccine.
Hogan and DeMattos looked on as Samuel Cushing, 70, and Kareleen Diggs, 95, rolled up their sleeves. Both Franklin Woods residents, who use wheelchairs, said they had hoped to be first in line when the vaccine became available.
Breaking News Alerts
Cushing, wearing a long-sleeved Baltimore Orioles T-shirt, said he hasn’t been able to see his daughter or granddaughter since March. He plans to hug them when he can.
”I’m not afraid. I wanted to show everybody it’s nothing to be afraid of,” Cushing said after the shot. He described the past nine months apart from his family as “the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Cushing said he made peace with dying this year. He contracted the coronavirus in October, but a mild case that didn’t result in symptoms, he said. Now, he can look forward to visits with his relatives again.
Diggs said she wanted the vaccine after reading about it and doing her research. After she got the shot, she said she didn’t even feel the needle go in.
”I didn’t know he gave it to me,” she said.
Hogan said close to 200,000 vaccines have arrived in Maryland so far, including about 30,000 from Pfizer that the state hadn’t expected to come this early. He said ideally he’d like to have 6 million vials available to vaccinate the whole state, but will settle for this amount in a week’s time.
”We have a really good chunk,” he said. “It’s never going to be fast enough. But we want them to remain patient. We’re starting with the most vulnerable first and they’ve already been distributed to every single hospital in the state.”