The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine at the state-run Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea on Tuesday marked what many hope to be a brighter chapter for the elder care facilities that were ravaged this spring by the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the first day of vaccinations at the veterans’ homes, officials reported that the majority of residents — 86 percent at Chelsea and 94 percent at Holyoke — received the first dose of the vaccine. But vaccination rates were much lower among employees at the facilities, with just 19 percent of staff at Chelsea and 39 percent at Holyoke opting to receive a shot on the first day of vaccinations, according to data calculated by the Globe.
Both facilities experienced severe coronavirus outbreaks in April with a total of 108 veterans between the two homes dying from complications of COVID-19. Seventy percent of those deaths occurred at the Holyoke facility in a cluster that ranks as one of the deadliest in the nation among long-term care homes. Administrators’ handling of the outbreak there sparked investigations that led to criminal negligence charges against the home’s superintendent and medical director, as well as a string of resignations from other leaders at the facility.
Union leaders at the Soldiers’ Home of Holyoke told the Globe Tuesday that they chose to get vaccinated in part to set an example for fellow staffers, but some also expressed concerns about the vetting of the vaccines. They estimated that half the staff would likely opt-out, a number that turned out to be optimistic based on statistics released Wednesday by the state. Vaccinations are voluntary for both residents and staff.
“Well, I’m participating so that my other coworkers might follow, but I have mixed emotions,” said Joe Ramirez, a certified nursing assistant and vice president of SEIU Local 888, a union representing CNAs at the home. “A lot of people, including me, are afraid. We don’t really know the full details of the vaccine. And for me from my perspective, I already had [COVID-19] so the cost and benefits are hard to weigh.”
Ramirez was one of the first employees to become infected with the virus after taking care of a sick veteran at the Holyoke facility in late March. Nearly half of the staff at the home have become infected in the past 10 months. The bulk of infections occurred during the height of the outbreak, but a string of positive tests among employees through the fall and winter forced administrators to cease in-person visits. There is currently one active infection reported among staff at Holyoke and 23 at Chelsea. Ramirez’s concerns about the vaccine and his colleagues’ participation in the clinic were echoed by Kwesi Ablordeppey, also a certified nursing assistant and chapter president of the union.
“A lot of us are skeptical,” said Ablordeppey, a Ghanian immigrant who has cared for veterans at the home for two decades. “Particularly us, African-Americans, were skeptical about the whole vaccine. There’s a lot of mistrust.”
A recent poll found that while the majority of Massachusetts residents plan to get the coronavirus vaccine when made available to them, Black and Latino residents were more hesitant because of longstanding distrust of the government on healthcare issues. Across the country, Black and Hispanic employees comprise 37 and 12 percent, respectively, of direct care workers in nursing homes.
State officials said CVS, which is administering the vaccines in nursing homes and long term care facilities in partnership with Walgreens and the federal government, returned Wednesday to the Chelsea facility to administer an unspecified number of doses to staff. They will be onsite next at both homes on Jan. 19 to administer the second dose of vaccinations for those that were vaccinated on Dec. 29, and to administer the first doses for those who newly consent.
As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out to more people across the country, health authorities are keeping a close watch for any unexpected side effects. There have been a handful of allergic reactions among the first wave of vaccine recipients, but most had a history of allergic reaction and all recovered after treatment. The FDA has found no serious side effects in the tens of thousands enrolled in studies of the two authorized vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
Moreover, the FDA will continue to survey data as the vaccine is distributed. Doctors are required to report any patient problems, and officials are scrutinizing massive databases of insurance claims for early red flags of any health problems occurring more often in the newly vaccinated.