Nursing homes wrap up first round of vaccinations

Nursing homes wrap up first round of vaccinations

Pauline Connor, a resident at Oakland Grove Health Care Center, prepares to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from Jenna Pari last Wednesday, Jan. 6. Connor, a former nun with the Religious of Jesus and Mary, said she looks forward to going from room to room again to talk and pray with the other residents. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – As nursing homes and health officials push to distribute COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, some are meeting resistance from an unlikely source.

Scott Fraser, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an organization that represents more than 80 percent of nursing homes in the state, told The Breeze on Monday that member nursing homes are reporting about 60 percent of staff participating in the first round of vaccine distribution. Though the organization doesn’t keep actual figures, he said, the estimates come as most nursing homes wrap up their first round of vaccine doses this week.

“Our homes encourage all the staff to get the vaccine, and on average I’m hearing it’s around 60 to a little above 60 percent are getting the first injection,” he said. “In some cases, staff are waiting to see how the first round goes, and I would expect that number to go up a little.”

By contrast, he said, estimates for resident participation have been close to 100 percent.

Nursing homes in Rhode Island are receiving the vaccine through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. The pharmacies, said Fraser, take care of supply and administering the injections, while the state sets up the schedule for distribution to individual nursing homes.

“That started on the 28th of December, which was two weeks after the first hospital injection, and of course the sooner we can get all our residents and staff vaccinated, the better off we’re going to be,” he said.

Each nursing home, he said, receives three rounds of vaccine distribution. The first and second are intended to give residents and staff the recommended two doses of vaccine, while the third is to administer another dose to anyone who didn’t receive their first dose until the second round.

Fraser said he expects to see staff participation go up during the second round after nursing home employees have a chance to see how their coworkers handled the first round of vaccines.

“It’s certainly an individual choice and we do understand that, but we certainly encourage everybody who can vaccinated to get vaccinated, because it protects them and everybody around them,” he said.

One of the facilities represented by the Rhode Island Health Care Association is Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket, where staff and residents began receiving their first dose of the vaccine last Wednesday, Jan. 6. According to Administrator Robert Sechio, all 73 of the facility’s 126 residents who were eligible to receive the vaccine received it the first day, while staff would follow a staggered schedule. As of Wednesday afternoon, 57 staff members had received the vaccine.

“We’ve been fighting this. The facility has been fighting this right from the get go,” he said.

Oakland Grove has been one of the harder hit facilities in the state, with a surge of cases early on during the pandemic. Sechio said most of the facility’s COVID-19 patients these days arrive at the nursing home for recovery after testing positive at local hospitals. These patients reside in a COVID-dedicated unit on the nursing home’s fourth floor, while long-term residents are kept separate on other floors.

The arrival of the vaccine comes after a turbulent year for the facility’s management. In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the nursing home for allegedly failing to report the death of an employee from COVID-19. According to documents obtained by The Breeze under the Freedom of Information Act, the nursing home learned on or around May 4 of last year that an employee had died of a COVID-19-related illness and failed to report the death as a work-related incident. The citation also alleges the nursing home failed to report five cases of COVID-19 among employees between May and August, violations that resulted in a combined fine of $11,567. (Athena Health Care Systems, Oakland Grove’s parent company, is disputing the violations.)

Sechio, who began his term as administrator on Dec. 14, said he wasn’t aware of what happened at the facility prior to his term, but he aims to create a positive work environment in what’s been a “high-stress environment” for employees.

“That’s my style is trying to make them happy and they work hard for my residents,” he said.

The atmosphere was joyful on Wednesday as residents took turns receiving their vaccine. Roger Dugas, an 81-year-old resident, said he looks forward to being able to go out to eat again, especially at one of his favorite restaurants, Texas Roadhouse.

“It’s about time. I’ve been waiting,” he said.

Fraser said on Monday member nursing homes expect to complete the first round of vaccinations by the end of this week, with rounds two and three already scheduled for the weeks ahead.

The Rhode Island Department of Health had not responded to a request for comment on this story as of press time.