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State’s most vulnerable residents and their caretakers begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines

Wariness among staff seems to be easing.

Jack Cederberg, a University of Rhode Island student pharmacist working for CVS, administered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Nancy Vecchione Colonero, 103, a resident of Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Westborough on Monday.
Jack Cederberg, a University of Rhode Island student pharmacist working for CVS, administered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Nancy Vecchione Colonero, 103, a resident of Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Westborough on Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A campaign to vaccinate 115,000 residents and employees at Massachusetts long-term-care facilities began Monday, bringing hope to a sector ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 30 vaccination clinics were held at these facilities Monday, according to state officials, with more scheduled over the next several weeks.

The clinics mark a transformational moment in the long-term-care industry’s fight against the coronavirus. COVID-19 has sickened more than 30,000 residents and workers and killed more than 7,000, accounting for more than 60 percent of the state’s total coronavirus deaths. Residents also have suffered acutely from isolation, as visitation restrictions needed to prevent disease spread have kept loved ones away.

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“I’m just grateful that this day has finally arrived,” said Zo Long, northeast division vice president of Life Care Centers of America, which owns 15 Massachusetts nursing homes.

Some 135 residents and 123 staffers at Life Care’s Acton and Auburn facilities were vaccinated by workers from CVS on Monday. “It’s just a blessing to have the vaccine, “ Long said.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents for-profit nursing homes, said initial reports from her members were enthusiastic.

“The clinics are going really well,” she said. Gregorio expects staff and residents at all 380 nursing homes to be vaccinated within the next couple of weeks.

Nurse Malick Issah had the coronavirus and was one of the first to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Life Care of Acton on Monday.
Nurse Malick Issah had the coronavirus and was one of the first to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Life Care of Acton on Monday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Elissa Sherman, president of LeadingAge Massachusetts, the trade group for nonprofit companies serving older people, said in an e-mail: “Lots of excitement. Truly an historic moment!”

CVS and Walgreens are administering the vaccination program under contract with the federal government. Both companies have promised to visit each Massachusetts long-term-care facility at least three times in the coming weeks. Participants, who will receive the vaccine made by Pfizer, will have to come back for a second dose three weeks after the first.

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Residents and staff at long-term-care facilities — a category that includes assisted-living facilities and rest homes, as well as nursing homes — are the second group to receive the vaccine, after front-line hospital workers who interact with patients. As of Dec. 22, more than 35,000 doses had been administered, according to state data.

Assisted-living homes expect the program to start for them in mid-January, said Brian Doherty, chief executive of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association.

At Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Westborough, the first resident to be inoculated was Nancy Vecchione Colonero, who is 103. Asked if she was excited to get the shot, Colonero said cheerily, “I’m not excited, at my age, by anything.”

But she added, “I feel privileged. . . . I’ve been looking forward to this.”

But the very first person to be vaccinated at the Beaumont was Julio Bercian, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant at the nursing home for 34 years.

Julio Bercian threw his hand up in the air in celebration after Iliana D'Abreau, a CVS Pharmacy intern, administered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to him at Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center.
Julio Bercian threw his hand up in the air in celebration after Iliana D'Abreau, a CVS Pharmacy intern, administered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to him at Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Now I’m so happy because I got the vaccine,” said the 61-year-old Westborough resident, adding that the injection didn’t even hurt. “I hope we can end this pandemic very soon.”

Some nursing home administrators and public health officials have expressed concern that many long-term-care employees may reject the vaccine. These facilities employ many immigrants and Black and Latino workers, who have learned to be wary of the health care system because of its history of racist experimentation and ongoing disparities in care.

But as more people take the vaccine and excitement builds about it, long-term-care leaders say they are sensing a change of heart.

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Lisa Coppola, the executive director in Beaumont at Westborough, said in an e-mailed statement that 75 percent of staff members there had signed up for the first of three clinics, and she expects an additional 10 percent to take the vaccine at the second clinic. The Beaumont in Westborough vaccinated 192 staff members and 103 residents Monday.

Shawn Neville, executive director of the Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center of Worcester, said that at his facility, “It looks like most people are very excited about it. This is something people are getting in line for before we ask.”

Life Care of Acton resident Mary Perkins, 88, received her coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine.
Life Care of Acton resident Mary Perkins, 88, received her coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Similar increases are being seen throughout the system, Gregorio said. “Those numbers are steadily rising,” Gregorio said, reaching 80 percent or 85 percent acceptance in many facilities.

Ted Doyle, vice president of marketing and communications at LCB Senior Living, which runs 13 assisted-living facilities in Massachusetts, said that in recent surveys of the company’s staff, the number who say they will accept the vaccine has jumped from 50 percent to 65 percent in just two weeks.

In addition to regular staff, the nursing homes are offering vaccines to ancillary providers who come in occasionally to draw blood, take X-rays, or perform other tasks that involve interaction with patients, Gregorio said. “We are casting the net wide,” she said.

And almost all residents are on board. At the Beaumont Westborough, 95 percent have agreed to take the vaccine, similar to nursing homes elsewhere.

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“This hopefully means we will dramatically reduce the risk of spread and return to normal operations soon after the clinics are completed,” said Coppola, the Beaumont Westborough director. “Our residents, staff, and families have been through a lot. It will be my pleasure to open our doors for visitors again and I can’t wait to see our dining rooms and activity spaces full again.”





Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.