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More Maryland nursing home staffers getting COVID vaccine, although numbers lag compared to residents

Pharmacists Greg Fakorede and Kevin Uhll at the Maryland Baptist Aged Home in December administering first rounds of COVID-19 vaccines. A month later, the number of nursing home residents being vaccinated statewide is rising, while the number of workers receiving the doses lags behind.
Pharmacists Greg Fakorede and Kevin Uhll at the Maryland Baptist Aged Home in December administering first rounds of COVID-19 vaccines. A month later, the number of nursing home residents being vaccinated statewide is rising, while the number of workers receiving the doses lags behind. (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

The number of workers at Maryland nursing homes receiving the first round of COVID-19 vaccines is rising, a welcome sign after early reports showed many workers were participating at a lower rate than hoped for.

The gap between staffers and residents receiving the vaccine remains high, officials said, although industry officials said that it is narrowing.

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Joseph DeMattos, CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, said the agency polled several nationally owned nursing homes across the state and, after reviewing the data this week found that the number of staff getting the shots climbed to about 66%. Some facilities reached as high as 72%, but others were as low as 37%, DeMattos said.

Tens of thousands of nursing home residents and staff were in the first priority group to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in December when it first became available. While about 85% of residents initially received the vaccine, only an average of 55% of staff were willing, according to state data from early January.

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The state has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to administer the vaccines through a series of three events at nursing homes, with the goal of providing access to the two-dose regimen as soon as possible. A health department spokesman directed reporters to representatives from CVS and Walgreens for statistics on the vaccine acceptance rates at nursing homes.

CVS spokesman Joseph Goode said the company did not have statistics on how many staff members at long-term care facilities have declined the vaccination “because we aren’t provided with full staff roster.”

However, he added that “based on feedback from our clinical teams in the field, staff uptake of the vaccine remains low when compared with facility residents.”

A spokesperson for Walgreens did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Still, nursing home advocates said there are signs of progress after the state initially estimated that only a little more than half of staffers were willing to be vaccinated. DeMattos is feeling optimistic but he said there are still not enough people getting vaccinated.

“The only way that we get back to normalcy and reduce the social isolation in nursing homes is through vaccination,” DeMattos said. “And that’s the story we need to tell: That our best hope of hugging, loving and hanging out is to take the vaccine.”

Maryland has lagged behind most other states when it comes to administering the vaccines. The state has delivered 852,625 of its vaccine stash to local providers, but 483,149 of the shots have actually been administered as of Friday, according to health department data.

In the past 24 hours, the state administered first doses to 22,868 new people, alongside 10,365 second shots.

So far, about 6% of the state population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Roland Park Place, a retirement community in Baltimore that offers residential facilities ranging from independent living to skilled nursing care, expects about 75% of employees to have received their first dose of the vaccine by this Tuesday.

Becki Bees, vice president of sales and marketing for Roland Park Place, said the community’s leadership “saw a little reluctance” toward the vaccine among its staffers at first. The North Baltimore retirement community did not require its staff to be vaccinated to continue to work on-site, opting to have its medical director and leadership address workers’ concerns individually.

The Village at Augsberg, a retirement community in Baltimore County, has gone through two vaccination clinics, and 55% of staff members have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, according to spokeswoman Allison Combs.

When the Lochearn retirement community was preparing for the clinics in December, Combs said, there was some initial reluctance among staffers as an internal poll showed that roughly one-third were willing to be vaccinated, while another third said “maybe” and the rest said they were not interested.

She said since that time, the community’s medical director and clinical team have engaged workers about the vaccine, which has increased the number of staffers willing to be vaccinated.

Felicia Anthony, the executive director of the North Oaks retirement community in Pikesville, said that a little over 40% of the community’s staffers received their first dose of the vaccine Jan. 15 and that there were “some apprehension regarding the newness of the vaccine and ... the side effects they’d have” among those that didn’t.

It was in stark contrast with the community’s residents themselves, who Anthony said almost uniformly opted to receive the vaccine during the first clinic, with only a handful declining due to medical concerns.

However, while the clinic did not have an estimate as to how many more workers are willing to get their first doses during the second clinic on Feb. 5, Anthony added that a number of employees have now indicated they’re willing to become vaccinated.

DeMattos said that political actions by President Donald Trump may have created initial anxiety over whether the drug was rushed to market, and said there is a sense of mistrust among many because of the documented disenfranchisement of Black individuals and other minorities.

“People didn’t want to be the first,” DeMattos said. “Now [the vaccine] is more broadly distributed and there is a sense of urgency to take it.”

Officials have largely been focused on the rollout of the vaccine, DeMattos said, but in the process, he said, his organization and federal and local governments “missed the boat” on partnering with community leaders to promote the safety of the vaccine.

However, he is “really impressed” with many nursing homes designating peer employees as ambassadors to talk with other workers about the importance of the vaccine, and in some cases, imploring local chaplains to help spread the message.

“I think what’s very, very important is that health care workers realize two things,” DeMattos said. “That they’re taking the vaccine to be safer at work and that they are also taking the vaccine for all of us to be safer in the community at large.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon, Meredith Cohn and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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