Kelly Duncan is desperate for her mother Diane to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Kelly Duncan is desperate for her mother Diane to get the COVID-19 vaccine. So far, there’s been no word about when that will be from Aegis Assisted Living in Aptos where Diane lives. Note: Photographer shot this with long lens to remain safely distanced from Kelly and Diane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Vaccine Watch

Only 25% of nursing home, assisted-living and other long-term care residents here have gotten vaccine

LOOKOUT EXCLUSIVE: “The information we get on this is really spotty. I’m kind of frustrated,” one county health official says. “We were hoping that they would all be done by now, at least the first round dose. And that hasn’t been the case.”

Fewer than 500 of 1,849 long-term care residents in Santa Cruz County had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of the start of this week, and most assisted-living facilities here don’t have dates set for vaccine clinics, Lookout Santa Cruz has learned.

The disclosure comes as elderly adults in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities have been one of the most vulnerable populations dying from COVID-19, accounting for about 38% of all COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

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Locally, this number has been even higher: nearly 70% of all deaths have been among residents of these facilities.

Health officials and politicians have agreed from the beginning that this population should be first in line to receive vaccines, and the Trump administration teamed up with major pharmacy chains to distribute and administer the vaccine. The program created to do this is called the Federal Pharmacy Partnership, and CVS and Walgreens are the main players.

A week ago, CVS and Walgreens both released statements saying they were on track to administer first doses to skilled nursing facilities in their program by Jan. 25, which CVS said was “consistent with timelines originally shared with states and provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

Lookout obtained state data that was shared with county health officials which contains updates on the total vaccines administered and future clinic dates for all local skilled nursing and assisted living facilities.

Five of the county’s seven skilled nursing facilities have clinic dates before the deadline. The only exception is Watsonville Nursing and Post Acute Centers, which has two facilities on its campus. Its vaccination schedule had to be delayed because of a COVID-19 outbreak among residents.

But skilled nursing facilities are only one segment of this vulnerable population: Santa Cruz County also houses at least 57 assisted living facilities enrolled in the federal pharmacy program, places like Dominican Oaks or Sunshine Villa where seniors receive support without formal medical care.

According to the data delivered to the county on Monday, Dominican Oaks is the only local assisted living facility in the program to have received vaccines. None of the others even have dates scheduled.

“I’m told that some of these (clinic dates) have been just kind of delayed week after week,” Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county director of emergency medical services, told Lookout on Monday. “The information we get on this is really spotty. I’m kind of frustrated. We were hoping that they would all be done by now, at least the first round dose. And that hasn’t been the case.”

Blame Sacramento?

Part of the problem might have originated in Sacramento: California was relatively late to activate the pharmacy vaccination program for assisted living facilities, waiting to do so until January 11, which a CVS spokesperson said meant vaccination clinics there couldn’t begin until this week. Many other states activated this process as early as December 28, according to data from CVS, and California initiated the rollout for skilled nursing facilities on December 28.

The process of waiting for a vaccine, and lack of transparency from the pharmacy program, has been harrowing for residents and their families.

Kelly Duncan’s mother, Diane, moved into Aegis Assisted Living in Aptos two years ago. Diane, who is 90, has COPD, and contracting COVID-19 could have serious ramifications for her. Aegis tests their residents every week on Monday. Every week Kelly Duncan and her family wait anxiously for her mother’s results. So far, the rest results have remained negative, but many of Diane’s neighbors have not been so lucky. So far, 35 Aegis residents in Aptos have tested positive, and 3 have died.

When Duncan heard the news at the beginning of December that COVID-19 vaccines would be made available to nursing homes first, she was relieved. She waited for the news that the vaccines would come to Aegis.

“Once the vaccine was approved in the middle of December, I began talking to Aegis, emailing them probably every three days to try and get status updates. And the response has always been the same, which is, ‘We don’t have any dates,’” Duncan said.

Weeks passed with the same response. “Every communication from Aegis is that they, they don’t know when they’re going to get the vaccine, they haven’t received any information. So of course I thought that someone should know,” she said. That’s when she started calling the CVS corporate headquarters and sending emails to her local representatives. No one could say when Aegis could expect a date.

Lookout reached out to Aegis management, who said they “expect those dates very soon.”

Managers of assisted living facilities say the process of getting vaccinations through the program has been laborious and confusing.

“We’re just waiting,” said Andrea Quiros, a caregiver and manager at Rose Garden residential care in Watsonville. For weeks they have been calling local doctor’s offices and the pharmacy chains. “They’ve just been like, ‘We’re not getting it. We have no idea. We have no news at all, when or even if they’re going to get it.’”

Frustation mounts

County health officials, who have no control over the federal program that oversees the vaccine rollout to nursing homes and long term care facilities, are also frustrated by the slow pace and lack of communication. Meanwhile, more than 11,000 vaccine doses sent to the county were in cold storage this week as officials work to administer them to other groups of people in Phase 1a, including hospital staff, first responders and more.

Ghilarducci is especially concerned about the assisted living facilities, which are next in line after the skilled nursing locations. Like Aegis, most of them have yet to receive any sign that their vaccinations will begin soon. “We have thousands of patients in that category (who) are still waiting for a vaccine.”

This is not just a local issue. In the state’s most recent Community Vaccine Advisory meeting, which convened interest groups and public health officials from around California, representatives of nursing homes voiced frustration with the slow rollout.

Leza Coleman, Executive Director of the California Long-term Care Ombudsman Association, said she was hearing from her members that they were getting “literally frantic phone calls” from administrators of assisted living facilities who were being told they wouldn’t get the first dose until March.

Until something changes, Duncan, and hundreds of other families in Santa Cruz County, continue to wait and hope that their loved ones will get at least a first dose soon.

“It would mean that every week the family wouldn’t just have to be sitting back waiting for the test results, fearful that she’s going to come up positive. It would mean that we would be able to relax,” Duncan said. “It would mean that we wouldn’t fear that she would die.”

Here’s a look at the vaccination data that Lookout obtained from county health:

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