‘No better candidates’: Former nursing home administrator says facilities eager for vaccine

Local Coronavirus Coverage

More than 2,300 residents and staff of Northeast Tennessee long term care facilities have contracted COVID through outbreaks. Long term cares are in the first phase of vaccine rollout.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With COVID-19’s toll continuing to mount in the region’s long-term care facilities, a former nursing home administrator said the industry is well-deserving of its high priority on the vaccine rollout list.

Ryan Youngblood, who teaches health care administration at East Tennessee State University, said his former colleagues are battling staffing shortages, the daily barrage of new demands in the COVID era, and the emotional suffering of seeing residents die at stunning rates.

“If they get the vaccine quickly I’m sure they will welcome that because that’ll take a lot of pressure off in a lot of ways,” Youngblood told News Channel 11 Tuesday.

Staff and residents of long term care facilities are listed with five other categories as “Phase 1a1” in the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. That’s the highest-priority group and comprises an estimated 450,000 people total.

Youngblood said receiving the vaccine is at least as important for residents and staff of long-term care facilities as it is for other front line health care workers. In the 15-county viewing area of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, 41 percent of the 755 recorded COVID deaths have been linked to nursing home outbreaks.

Long term care outbreaks across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have accounted for more than 41 percent of total COVID deaths.

“I think it’s more critical in a lot of ways because this is the population that has had the greatest affect,” Youngblood said. “There’s no population that needs the vaccine more than these elderly.”

An advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) included long-term care residents and staff in the highest-priority group for receiving the vaccine. Just when that rollout will begin is uncertain, but the CFC has partnered with the Walgreens and CVS, the nation’s two largest pharmacy operators, on a joint effort.

The TDH vaccination plan references the federal agreement with Walgreens and CVS, saying it “will be implemented to vaccinate residents and staff of long-term care facilities.”

The CDC’s “Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care (LTC) Program” aims to “facilitate safe vaccination of long-term care residents and reduce the burden on facilities and health departments,” according to a CDC webpage.

Facilities can also use their regular pharmacies — if not CVS or Walgreens — as long as those businesses meet cold chain management and data reporting requirements.

Whatever path they choose, the region’s dozens of long-term care facilities will be more than ready for the relief the vaccine will bring, Youngblood said. He said their management is already familiar with the type of monitoring for side effects and metrics they must report for flu and pneumonia vaccines.

A widespread rollout should bring a major change within a couple of months, following a season of outbreaks that hit Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia starting in August and really hasn’t let up.

East Tennessee State University health care administration professor Ryan Youngblood.

Youngblood said one colleague had a family member recently contract COVID and wind up in a long term care. That brought the emotional suffering of thousands of area families home to bear.

“She was telling me, ‘yeah I’m going to go say high to mom through the glass.’ And that’s totally appropriate but at the same time,  what an awful time to have to go through that. We’re in the middle of a holiday, people are having to balance that – the love of mom and dad and the love of being around mom and dad.”

Youngblood said he was glad to see the industry get such high priority for vaccines.

“Sometimes I think long term care feels like it’s the third wheel of health care,” he said. “It’s sub-acute, it’s not considered the sexiest location for working in health care, and it doesn’t get a lot of the resources that I think it should.”

Youngblood said the fact that several facilities have emerged from outbreaks once only to have them recur speaks to the difficulty of keeping it out.

“I see organizations that have every precaution in place and they get an infection,” he said. “I feel for these facilities that have had these multiple recurrences because you can take so many precautions and just one little thing happens.”

From what he’s learned, Youngblood thinks the vaccine is effective and safe enough to far outweigh any potential side effects given what nursing homes are enduring right now.

“I don’t know of a long term care administrator who this isn’t the number one priority for them right now. They’re not even thinking about bottom lines at this point, they’re just worried about keeping the residents safe.

“Let’s get everybody vaccinated — staff especially.”

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