LAWTON — COVID-19 vaccines are being administered at Oklahoma’s veteran centers this weekend because state health officials said the federal program responsible for vaccinating long-term care residents and staff is moving too slow.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Friday took back 2,500 vaccines it had given to CVS for long-term care residents and brought them to veteran centers in Lawton, Claremore, Ardmore, Clinton, Norman and Sulphur. CVS and Walgreens are contracted by the federal government to vaccinate those most vulnerable to the virus.
Nearly three weeks after vaccinations began, most Oklahoma nursing homes had received the first of two doses despite a slower-than-expected rollout. But veteran centers, which had some of the state’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, had been delayed.
Keith Reed, who is overseeing the process as the state health department’s deputy commissioner, was done waiting.
“They represent our most vulnerable population,” Reed said. “We just could not stand by and let our veterans and our veteran centers go another week without getting vaccinated.”
Over two days, the state deployed county health departments and called on its contract with Passport Health to bring vaccinations to six of its seven veteran centers. The Talihina center had already received the vaccine.
Michael Russell is an Army veteran and administrator at the Fort Sill veteran center in Lawton, where the Comanche County Health Department administered nearly 120 vaccines on Saturday. Russell had been preparing residents and staff for a vaccine clinic that CVS had scheduled for next week. He was notified on Thursday that the state was taking over and the date had been moved up.
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“We’ve been fairly lucky, but I heard from some of the other centers with the largest blowouts and fatalities, they started getting positives and then the virus spread incredibly fast and there was nothing they could do,” Russell said. “So, one week could make all the difference.”
Fewer than 20 of the facilities’ 300 workers chose to get vaccinated on Saturday. Many feared side-effects and wanted to see how the vaccine affected their colleagues and the residents who chose to take it before receiving it themselves. Some night-shift workers were unprepared to break their routine and others were unable to come in on their day off due to the short notice.
About 100 or half of the facility’s residents were vaccinated. Russell said in some cases he was unable to get consent from residents’ guardians and powers-of-attorney given the quick turnaround. He expects a better turnout from staff and more residents to be vaccinated when the health department returns with a second round of vaccines in three weeks.
Russell was the first to be vaccinated and said he is encouraging his staff and residents to do the same.
“We’ve been fighting a defensive battle and this is a preventive measure and a positive step we can take to actually fight back,” Russell said.
Since March, more than 10,000 of Oklahoma’s long-term care residents and staff have contracted COVID-19. And 813 of them have died.
Following guidance from the state, most of Oklahoma’s 650 long-term care facilities signed up for the federal program with CVS and Walgreens. The state was responsible for vaccinating staff and residents at 177 facilities that chose not to sign up or missed the deadline. All of those facilities received their first dose within two weeks after distribution began.
It took CVS three weeks to bring vaccines to 60 of the 170 facilities in its program. Walgreens would not provide the number of facilities enrolled in its Oklahoma program or how many had received the vaccine. Both companies refused to name the facilities they are serving.
CVS spokesman Joseph Goode responded to questions by email Friday. “We are working with the state to reallocate vaccine supply in order for the National Guard to vaccinate those who have given so much in service to our country,” he said when asked about veteran centers. “We’re grateful for our partnership with the state and for our health care professionals who are working together throughout Oklahoma to bring peace of mind to the state’s veteran homes residents, staff, and their loved ones.”
A Walgreens spokesman refused to provide any information or data about its Oklahoma program in an email Friday.
With the state taking over veteran centers, CVS and Walgreens are expected to bring vaccines to the last of Oklahoma’s nursing homes this week completing “plan A” of the two-part, long-term care rollout, Reed said. But as the state opens vaccinations to the 65-and-older general population, residents and staff at remaining long-term care facilities are still waiting.
Vaccinations are weeks away for thousands of residents and staff at assisted living facilities, adult day cares, residential care centers and facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. These facilities make up “plan B.” Some are scheduled to receive their first vaccines later this month or next. Others remain in the dark.
In Norman, staff at Arbor House Reminisce said they’re still waiting on a date from CVS. The Gardens at Rivermont assisted living facility is scheduled for Feb. 1. And a worker who answered the phone at Brookdale Norman retirement community said she is “super pumped” for the vaccine, which will arrive there later this month.
All facilities should receive their first round by mid-February, according to the companies’ websites. But some aren’t willing to wait any longer.
“I knew this would be tough, but I did hope that we would do the responsible thing and take care of the most vulnerable people first,” said Shannon Bailey, a 47-year-old healthcare worker in Bartlesville. “But that’s not what happened so I guess we’re going to have to take it into our own hands.”
Choosing Not To Wait
Bailey’s 71-year-old mother, Gail Ripley, moved into Villagio of Bradford Village in Edmond this summer after she was found lying on the floor in her home following a stroke. Visitor restrictions have for months kept Bailey from her mother, a small but fierce woman who worked in schools most of her life and ran a head start program.
Bailey worries about her mother’s exposure to COVID-19 since Ripley’s immune system is weakened by medication and suffers from chronic pain and autoimmune diseases. Bailey was relieved when she heard that long-term care residents would get the first vaccines. But she started to lose hope after weeks went by without answers.
She called the facility several times a week but the staff didn’t know when the vaccine was coming. CVS hasn’t set a date but one employee divulged that it could be six weeks or more. Meanwhile, the state was moving on to the next priority group. Oklahoma launched an online portal and encouraged people 65 and older who don’t live in a long-term care facility to schedule an appointment to be vaccinated. Frustration had been building, and Bailey had lost her patience.
Ripley’s daughters logged into the portal and nabbed an appointment for their mother. On Thursday, Bailey’s younger sister took their mother to Mercy Hospital where she received the first dose and a card reminding her to come back in three weeks for the second.
“I don’t know if it was the right thing to do or not,” Bailey said. “It was a tough decision and there was some guilt because ‘were we taking a vaccine away from someone else who needs it?’ But we didn’t know what else to do.”
Responsibility falls to CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate the Oklahoma’s remaining long-term care residents.
Reed, the deputy health commissioner, said the state, including the governor’s office, is putting pressure on the companies to move quickly by requesting progress reports. The state will continue designating a portion of its weekly vaccine allocation until vaccines have been administered at all long-term care facilities, he said.
The state doesn’t have the resources to vaccinate all of the remaining facilities without damaging progress already made, Reed said. Taking over the long-term care vaccinations would mean shutting down public clinics for weeks and jeopardizing future vaccine allocations to the state.
“If we do that we’re not doing anything to help our hospitals,” Reed said. “We’re not doing anything to help break that transmission. But we’re also leaving vaccine in the freezer, which means it also communicates on the federal level that we’re not able to move vaccine and that’s going to impact our ability to get more vaccine into the state to help more Oklahomans.”
“We’re going to be facing a lot of these moral dilemmas moving forward and ethical challenges,” he said, “and unfortunately there’s no good answers.”