By Alexis Rivas and Tom Jones, NBC 7 San Diego, January 14 2021
Just over 24 hours ago California announced anyone over age 65 can now get a COVID-19 vaccine, jumping ahead to a group that was supposed to fall under Phase 1B of the vaccination plan
But NBC 7 Investigates uncovered the overwhelming majority of people in long-term care and assisted living homes, who would fall into the Phase 1A group, are still waiting to get their shots.
CVS Pharmacy, who along with Walgreens is heading efforts to deliver vaccines to the vulnerable group, told NBC 7 Investigates the company started setting dates to vaccinate nursing home residents in California on Dec. 28 but they couldn’t start vaccinating assisted living facilities until Jan. 11.
CVS and Walgreens partnered with the federal government to deliver the vaccine to long term care facilities across the country, including 17,400 facilities across California. Out of that, more than 1,600 are here in San Diego County.
Natasha Josefowitz, a spunky 94-year-old columnist has called senior living community White Sands La Jolla home for the last 19 years. But for the last year, she has only been able to leave that home to go on oceanside walks and medical appointments.
That is, until last week, when residents first learned they could get the COVID-19 vaccine this week.
“We were ecstatic!” recalls Josefowitz in a remote video interview from her office. “Hooray! We’re going to get vaccinated!”
Two days ago, she got the shot.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was to do this,” says Josefowitz.
Happy, because for her, this is so much more than a vaccine.
“We can sit with our friends again!” says Josefowitz, bouncing in her chair. “We can have meals with our friends! We can go into the dining room again! We can go into the exercise room again! We can have a life again!”
She lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment where she gets meals delivered three times a day. That has been the extent of her human contact for most of the last year.
“So can you imagine how much we’re going to be enjoying and appreciating just to be able to be close to person and give them a hug,” says Josefowitz. “I mean hugs!”
It’s been one year since Josefowitz says she has felt a hug. But she misses the most, is simply the ability to see, read or watch something, and to share her thoughts with another human being in the same room.
“I am alone with my thoughts,” says Josefowitz.
Now it’s just a matter of weeks until she can share those thoughts again.
But NBC 7 Investigates learned most nursing and assisted living home residents will have to wait much longer.
NBC 7 Investigates obtained nursing home vaccine rollout schedule records kept by the California Department of Public Health. What we found most surprising wasn’t the size of the list, or even how far back some of the dates on it are. It’s the number of spaces still blank.
As of Jan. 10, 83% of the long-term care homes in California aren’t just waiting for a vaccine, they don’t even have a date on the calendar to get the first dose. In San Diego, that number is higher – 86%.
“That’s unacceptable,” says Michael Dark, a staff attorney for San Francisco-based nonprofit California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “There is a special cruelty about dying while a vaccine is within arms reach.”
Dark says we should be proud of how fast we developed a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine. But what’s happening now, he says, is like fumbling the ball at the 5-yard line.
“We fumbled it because much less energy was put into the logistics of how to actually get it to people,” says Dark.
Dark says the government dropped the ball when it rolled out a decentralized distribution plan, which Dark says just isn’t working.
“The real concern this gives rise to is, if we are botching this initial rollout how is going to look for everyone else over the course of the next few months? It’s essential that we get our act together,” Dark says.
In La Jolla, this vaccine isn’t just shielding against virus-induced death, it’s bringing back a less-shielded life.
“How wonderful it is to have somebody’s arm around you,” says Josefowitz. “Or to have a kiss.”
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to CVS and Walgreens. A CVS spokesman says they are “on track” nationally to vaccinate nursing homes within three months.
Walgreens did not respond to our questions.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent NBC 7 Investigates the following statement about the pace of the vaccine rollout and why California may be slower in their rollout:
Timing of on-site vaccination clinics for assisted living facilities (ALFs) and skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) may differ depending on the state. Vaccination clinics at SNFs and ALFs may begin simultaneously, or states may choose to complete all SNF clinics prior to beginning ALF clinics. Many states – including California – chose to prioritize all skilled nursing homes before moving on to other LTC facility types. With the first vaccination clinic in all skilled nursing facilities expected to be complete by next week, California submitted a request to start vaccinating in assisted living facilities starting this week, which explains why many of the facilities enrolled don’t have clinic dates scheduled yet.
This partnership is an ambitious and monumental effort to vaccinate millions of our nation’s long-term care facility residents and staff by bringing vaccination directly to the more than 70,000 facilities across the U.S. In only a few short weeks – a timeframe that includes the winter holidays – more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered through this program. And those efforts have significantly ramped up in the New Year. For example, more than 10,000 clinics are scheduled this week alone, and it’s anticipated that nearly all of the skilled nursing facilities in the country will have completed their first vaccination clinic by the end of next week. Vaccination is done onsite at individual facilities – and in many cases, room by room – to protect the medically fragile residents from COVID-19, as well as the frontline staff caring for them. Overall, that will encompass about 210,000 vaccination clinics held at long-term care facilities across the U.S., an enormous undertaking.
It’s also important to note the denominator that California is using for these estimates is based on certified bed counts, which should be interpreted with caution given that many facilities are not full, and there is constant change in resident and staff population, especially during the holidays. We expect to have a breakdown of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered through this program by state available to the public as early as next week through CDC’s COVID Data Tracker.