By Cody Mello-Klein | email@example.com
Walking into Goodwin House’s event room on Dec. 29, certified nursing assistant Momah Wolapaye was met with cheers, applause and shouts of joy. He was not receiving an award, but he may as well have been: Wolapaye was the first of Goodwin House’s staff to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Residents and staff at Goodwin House Alexandria, an elder care facility that provides independent and assisted living and nursing home care, were among the first in the city to receive the initial dose of the vaccine last week.
All told, Goodwin House, in partnership with CVS, was able to vaccinate 378 staff and residents in its nursing home and assisted living levels of care on Dec. 29. Vaccinations actually began even sooner at Inova Alexandria Hospital, with first doses administered to staff on Dec. 18.
For Josh Bagley, administrator of Goodwin House Alexandria’s nursing home level care, the Health Care Center, more residents and staff were vaccinated than he had anticipated.
“It was a really big success. We had a long wait list, and our entire wait list was able to get vaccinated,” Bagley said.
The energy in the room on Dec. 29 was palpable. Every staff member who entered the room was met with a fresh round of applause from those helping oversee the clinic. Even though the staff members were wearing masks, their smiles were so wide they poked through, lighting up their eyes even as they received the shot.
Goodwin House has a second vaccine clinic date set for Jan. 19. The Pfizer vaccine requires a follow-up dose three to four weeks after the first one, so residents and staff who received the initial dose on Dec. 29 can receive the second dose of the vaccine at the January clinic. Staff who work in the Health Care Center or assisted living who did not receive the vaccine on Dec. 29 will be able to receive the first dose on Jan. 19.
Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health, Goodwin House prioritized residents and staff in the Health Care Center’s nursing home level care for the initial dose. When Bagley and other administrative staff at Goodwin House Alexandria heard they would be receiving the vaccine, they had to request a specific number of doses. They chose to ask for 240 doses, the total number of staff and residents in the Health Care Center, even before receiving consent forms.
They also, optimistically, provided another set of numbers for all the assisted living residents and staff, with no expectation of receiving enough doses to vaccinate them as well, Bagley said.
Fortunately for Goodwin House Alexandria, CVS workers were able to bring additional doses that had not been used at another clinic. The additional doses allowed CVS to vaccinate every nursing home resident and every nursing home staff member who consented, in addition to every assisted living resident.
CVS workers stayed until 9:30 p.m. to ensure every vial they had was put to good use.
Whether they were a Goodwin House resident, nurse or maintenance worker, those who were able to receive the vaccine expressed a sense of relief after a tough year.
Due to their age, the residents at Goodwin House and the city’s other longterm care facilities have been among the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Sixty of Alexandria’s 88 COVID-19 deaths to date have been people age 70 and older, though not all were necessarily residents of LTCFs.
Because the risk of a severe COVID-19 case increases with age, LTCFs implemented tight restrictions around residents interacting with other people, even family members. This has left many residents feeling alone and eager to reconnect.
“At times we’ve had to cancel visitation because we had staff members that tested positive and were asymptomatic,” Bagley said. “It’s just a relief to know that some normal pieces of life will be able to come back for our residents who have been separated from their normal lives for so long.”
“It was kind of difficult for some of us to be isolated, but as long as they kept us well, what more could we ask?” Ruth Deardorff, a resident at Goodwin House said.
For staff who have to interact with both residents and their own families, the vaccine brought additional peace of mind.
“I feel a little relieved because it has been very challenging for me,” Zainab Kamara, a nurse supervisor at Goodwin House who helped administer the vaccine to residents, said.
“In the beginning of this, I was very serious. I have to be very honest: I was scared,” Kamara continued. “But with time, I took the fear off my shoulder and [reminded] myself that this is a challenge I have to face regardless of anything because of the position I am in. I have to face this challenge. Gradually, I overcame the fear, so I’m very excited just to feel safe among my coworkers, among the elderly I’m working with, among my family and friends.”
Leading up to Dec. 29, the residents at Goodwin House were buzzing with excitement, according to Jackie Barbarito, assisted living administrator at Goodwin House. As Barbarito went from room to room asking residents whether they wanted to sign the vaccine consent form, she couldn’t get the form out fast enough for most people.
“There was no hesitation,” Barbarito said. “I think they’re eager to get back to the normal. They’re tired of isolation and are ready to engage in activities.”
For residents who suffer from dementia or were otherwise unable to consent for themselves, the decision fell to their family members, most of whom just as eagerly signed the form. The pandemic been especially hard on those with dementia, more so than most other residents, Barbarito said.
“The effects of the social isolation on dementia have been pretty severe,” Barbarito said. “They miss their families. There’s been a drastic decline in these 11 months.”
While there was general enthusiasm about the vaccine among residents, not all staff members were 100% committed to getting the vaccine. There were questions and concerns about the process behind how the vaccine had been produced, side effects and general safety.
In order to assuage concerns, Goodwin House administrators launched an education campaign in the days leading up to the clinic. They held webinars with residents and their families and answered questions at weekly testing times for staff.
As the days went by, more and more people signed the required consent form to confirm they were ready to receive the vaccine. But what really sold the safety of the vaccine for residents and staff was what Bagley called “peer-to-peer energy.”
“More and more people were consenting as they saw their friends do it or people they trusted do it,” Bagley said.
Barbarito, who is six months pregnant, convinced several people to get the vaccine just by telling them she would be receiving it.
“There were some of my staff members who were hesitant, and I said, ‘I’m getting it.’ And they were like, ‘Wait, what?’” Barbarito said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, look at me. I’m getting it and I’m six months pregnant.’ They were like, ‘Well, if you can get it, I guess I can get it.’”
All told, 100% of residents in nursing care and assisted living consented, while about 75% of staff in those levels of care signed consent forms, according to Bagley.
On the day of the clinic, nursing staff accompanied the vaccinators to residents’ rooms in order to ensure they were able to comfort residents. At the same time, staff who had signed their consent forms lined up outside an event room to get the vaccine. By all accounts, the process was organized and quick. Staff were guided to one of three vaccination stations, received the vaccine and then were seated in an anteroom for 15 minutes to ensure they did not experience any immediate allergic reactions or negative effects.
So far, none of the people interviewed for this story have experienced severe side effects. However, some staff and residents who have received the vaccine have reported experiencing headaches since receiving the vaccine, Bagley said. According to the CDC, side effects, including fever or body aches, can occur but subside in two or three days and indicate the vaccine is working to engage the immune system.
Kamara has also spent the following days educating her staff about what it actually means to have the vaccine in their system.
“[The vaccine] doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be positive, but at least new antibodies have been introduced to fight it,” Kamara said. “Just take, for instance, the flu. Yeah, we have taken the vaccine, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get the flu. But at least there is something to fight against the flu.”
Goodwin House Alexandria was not alone in receiving initial doses of Pfizer’s vaccine from VDH. Dan Teka, director of supply chain at Inova Alexandria Hospital, was among the first group of frontline health care workers and hospital staff to get the vaccine on Dec. 18.
Teka and his department provide supplies, particularly personal protective equipment, to medical staff and other departments. Due to his constant interaction with other staff, Teka was deemed high priority to receive the vaccine, which left him with mixed feelings, he said.
“I’m happy that I was part of the first group, but at the same time I relate and sympathize with the people that are not in this group with us,” Teka said. “I understand the priority, but at the same time I can’t wait for that day where everyone has access to it as well.”
Those at Inova and Goodwin House hope that day isn’t too far off.
“Everybody is so focused on being reconnected with their loved ones,” Bagley said. “That’s the excitement in the air – and, of course, getting their hair done more frequently.”