State still working to pair assisted living facilities with registered vaccinators

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 7:16 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - “It’s been a struggle to find which path is the right one to go on because it seems like either we’re too early to the party or we’re too late.”

Jessica Van Vuren has been trying to get her husband’s 94-year-old grandmother, Irene, signed up to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She lives at Riverview Terrace Assisted Living Facility in Wausau.

Technically, Irene is eligible to get the vaccine through the COVID-19 Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program. National pharmacies, CVS and Walgreens, are given vaccine doses directly from the federal government to administer shots to staff and residents of long-term care facilities directly through vaccination clinics. States have to allocate a certain number of doses they receive from the CDC in order to start the program.

The first phase of the program in Wisconsin started in December for skilled nursing facilities. During its weekly stakeholders’ vaccine update meeting, representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported Friday that all 394 skilled nursing facilities have received at least their first doses of vaccine; 22% have had the full two-dose series. The second phase of the program began in mid-January, starting vaccination clinics in assisted living facilities. As of Friday, 28% or 978 facilities have received their first doses. Stephanie Schauer, Wisconsin’s immunization program director said they anticipate that all assisted living facilities will be have completed their first doses of the vaccine by the end of February.

However, weeks into starting the second phase of the program, not all assisted living facilities know which provider will be administering vaccines or when they can expect staff and people living there can receive the series.

“We have not heard anything on when that will be coming in,” Van Vuren said. “It’s been more or less indicated that it may be quicker to go on your own, which as a family member of an elderly person that is kind of just frustrating that I have to go find my own road.”

Jessica Van Vuren is working to get her husband's grandmother a COVID-19 vaccine.
Jessica Van Vuren is working to get her husband's grandmother a COVID-19 vaccine.(Jessica Van Vuren)

The facility’s manager, Wausau community services analyst, Juli Birkenmeier sympathetically confirmed that with 7 Investigates on Jan. 28. As of last week, she said DHS’ COVID-19 taskforce has identified them as a facility that needs a vaccine administrator, but they did not have one assigned to them. 7 Investigates tried to find out if that was still the case a week later, but could not reach Birkenmeier for an update. Schauer stated in the stakeholders meeting Friday, however, that they were still working to ensure all facilities get assigned a vaccinator.

“We have a lot of facilities in this group and a lot more than a lot of other states and CVS and Walgreens are finding that out as they go to schedule people,” DHS deputy secretary, Julie Willems Van Dijk said in response to 7 Investigates in a media briefing Jan. 29. “I know that they are also looking at bringing in staff from other states to assist with that.”

She noted the national pharmacies had asked the state to recruit local pharmacies and health departments to help vaccinate some of the assisted living facilities. That worked well for Mountain Terrace Senior Living in Wausau. The facility’s registered nurse and wellness director, Shawn Hurt said they had asked from the beginning to partner with Trig’s Pharmacy rather than just be assigned a provider. All staff and residents who wanted to get vaccinated received their second doses Friday.

Mountain Terrace Senior Living in Wausau completed administering the COVID-19 vaccine series to...
Mountain Terrace Senior Living in Wausau completed administering the COVID-19 vaccine series to staff and residents Feb. 5.(Mountain Terrace Senior Living)

That still leaves residents and their families of some other facilities wondering when the shots will be available to them. Van Vuren has taken Birkenmeier’s advice and signed up Irene for appointments with her health care systems. As soon as the news came out that people age 65 and older were eligible to receive a vaccine, she worked to find out how to make an appointment for Irene. However, she has run into numerous roadblocks just to confirm that Irene is on a waitlist.

Jessica Van Vuren is working to get her husband's grandmother a COVID-19 vaccine.
Jessica Van Vuren is working to get her husband's grandmother a COVID-19 vaccine.(Jessica Van Vuren)

“She’s 94 years old. I want to advocate for her wellbeing for her to be able to live,” she urged. “We’re trying to protect her. She has her grandkids, her great-grandkids I should say, my kids, that adore her that they would love to be able to see her.”

Hurt noted that even with Mountain Terrace residents receiving the full vaccine series, they cannot lift visitor policies. She explained they are held to CDC and state regulations and guidelines, so until those change, they cannot lift restrictions. They have designated an area in the facility to allow people to make appointments to visit residents one-on-one with social distancing and masking restrictions. Hurt said they do monitor residents’ wellbeing and set up compassionate care visits where one to two family members can visit two times a week for up to an hour. She said the isolation has been very hard on residents and seeing family is important to their wellbeing. They make exceptions to the visitor restrictions for end of life visits.

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