Assisted living residents in Wisconsin will begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in late January, state health officials said Thursday, weeks later than most other states, and some assisted living executives expressed frustration with the delay.
Wisconsin will be one of the last states in the country to activate the federal program for vaccinating people who live and work in assisted living. Through the program, CVS and Walgreens are sending vaccination teams to most long-term care facilities across the country to inoculate their residents and staff on-site.
While vaccinations began at Wisconsin nursing homes on Dec. 28, they will not start at assisted living facilities until the week of Jan. 25, state Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said during a Thursday media briefing.
State officials expect that by the end of the week, vaccinations will have taken place at “about half” of Wisconsin’s roughly 350 nursing homes, said Stephanie Schauer, Wisconsin’s immunization program manager.
Earlier this week, Wisconsin was one of about eight states that still had not signaled it was ready to start vaccinations in its more than 4,000 assisted living facilities. Most states, about 29, began vaccinations in assisted living on Jan. 4 or earlier, according to data from CVS. Eleven more are slated to begin the week of Jan. 11.
State officials say the problem is the volume of vaccine needed to cover initial doses for most everyone living and working in assisted living — an estimated 140,000 people.
The state is required to set aside half of the 140,000 doses within a week or so of notifying the federal government it is ready to begin assisted living vaccinations.
This week, the state had about 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine set aside for assisted living facilities, Willems Van Dijk said.
The deputy secretary said that Wisconsin has an abnormally large assisted living population compared with other states.
“I haven’t done this comparison, but the logical conclusion would be it took a higher percentage of our vaccine to be ready to begin that program” in assisted living, she said.
It’s aggravating hearing from assisted living facilities in other states that have received the vaccine without a hitch, said Jim Tarantino, CEO of Capri Communities, a group of 18 assisted living and memory care facilities across southeastern Wisconsin.
“We’d like to know what’s going on with our state,” he said.
Tarantino has also been frustrated by a lack of communication from the state. He said he was never told the nursing homes would rank above assisted living facilities in priority.
“We never got anything in writing,” he said. “There’s a real disconnect. There should be something much more structured.”
In early December, Capri quickly gathered the needed consent from roughly 1,200 residents and was prepared to have Walgreens administer vaccinations on Dec. 28. But that was the day they became available to nursing homes, not assisted living.
“We were led to believe that was the date,” he said.
Earlier this week, program coordinators from Walgreens called to say that two of Capri’s locations would be able to receive the vaccine later this month.
He’s not telling residents the dates yet as he’s not confident it will happen.
“If something does delay it, the psychology of that is harmful,” he said.
CVS has released state-level data showing that as of Wednesday, nearly 7,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered to nursing home residents and staff at about 88 sites in Wisconsin. Walgreens has not disclosed data on nursing home visits or doses in Wisconsin. Nearly 57,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine have been set aside for inoculating nursing home residents and staff.
The pharmacy chains have said they are on track to complete the first round of vaccine shots in nursing homes by Jan. 25.
It is unclear how long it will take to finish the first round of vaccinations in Wisconsin’s assisted living facilities, once they start later this month.
John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, a statewide association of long-term care facilities, said the pace needs to pick up.
“When you’re talking 70,000 assisted living residents and then add their staff in … we’re a ways to go,” he said. “I think we’re all holding our breath, crossing our fingers, saying prayers that it’s all going to go well because the health, safety and welfare of older adults is hanging in the balance.”
Long-term care facilities have been at the epicenter of the pandemic. Long-term care residents make up a small percentage of COVID-19 cases, but about 38% of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Rick Abrams, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living, said he understands the anxiousness of people in long-term care to get the vaccine, but that he believes in the process.
“As the vaccine supply increases, hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, we can accelerate this process,” he said.
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at email@example.com. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.