POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – Nursing homes around Florida began inoculating patients and staff Wednesday against COVID-19 with doses of the first U.S.-approved vaccine against the disease that has killed more than 20,000 people in the state.
At the John Knox Village near Fort Lauderdale, 90 of the 100 residents of its skilled-nursing were vaccinated Wednesday. The village has about 1,000 residents overall with most living independently in homes or apartments with others in assisted living. The state says three village residents have died of the virus, but Mark Rayner, its director of health services, disputed that number. He said the three had recovered and died of other causes.
Rayner said none of the skilled nursing patients had gotten the disease and one employee who contracted COVID-19 has since recovered. The patients in the six-story facility have individual apartments, with 12 people per unit who come together for meals and socializing. Rayner said that layout, social distancing, protective equipment for staff and daily testing have kept the virus at bay.
Resident Vera Leip, 88, got her vaccination Wednesday afternoon as Gov. Ron DeSantis and about 30 reporters and photographers watched. Liep, who taught elementary school in Ferguson, Missouri, for 40 years, said she was excited to get her shot.
“I hope it will help me from getting COVID,” she said. “I don’t know if it (the vaccines) will help or not. I hope they do. … I don’t know anything about it (the disease), but I would prefer not to have it.”
She said even with the pandemic, she has been able to visit with her two daughters, her son and three grandchildren. They meet in designated areas or outdoors and she has given them hugs.
“I don’t know if I was supposed to, but I did,” she laughed.
DeSantis was touting his administration’s effort to get nursing home patients vaccinated as quickly as possible. He said 21,400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were split between nursing homes in the Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg areas, with emergency medical technicians and Florida National Guard medical personnel visiting the homes to give the shots. Between Broward and Pinellas counties, DeSantis said, 112 different long-term care facilities are expected to be vaccinated over the next week.
He said the first nursing home shots had been scheduled by the CVS and Walgreens drugstore chains next week, but he didn’t want to wait. Over the last six weeks, the number of nursing home patients testing positive statewide has risen from 1 in 200 to 1 in 75, he said.
“We were not happy allowing that wait. Time is of the essence,” he said. “We believe the quicker you can get in to vaccinate, the better it is going to be.”
After Leip got her shot, DeSantis asked how she felt — fine, she replied. He then quickly pushed her wheelchair back inside and left without taking questions.
Such nursing homes have borne the brunt of the state’s outbreak, with 7,765 of its 20,365 confirmed deaths reported there. Thirty-nine Florida nursing homes have had two dozen or more deaths among residents and staff, including a nursing home in the South Florida community of Hialeah with 70 resident deaths.
Florida is receiving about 180,000 doses of the initial Pfizer vaccine approved for emergency use, and hospitals around the state began vaccinating front-line health workers Monday. Several nursing homes were beginning the jabs Wednesday.
DeSantis has focused much of his pandemic messaging around protecting nursing homes. Previously, the state had imposed early restrictions on visitations and barred the return from hospitals of virus-positive patients unless those facilities had COVID-19 wards. With Florida’s high percentage of retirees and large number of nursing homes, the toll on the elderly was an acute concern early in the pandemic.
In some early periods about 50% of the deaths in Florida were linked to nursing homes. That figure has now been brought down to 38 percent of the total, just a tad below the national average of 39% computed by the Covid Tracking Project.
Florida has the second-highest nursing home population in the country behind California. However, the percentage of its population living in long-term health facilities is only 23rd in the nation.
At John Knox, Rayner said the facility is not requiring employees to get the vaccine and only 80 of the 200 employees in the skilled nursing facility have volunteered for the first wave. He said many of those who had declined were Black employees who said they didn’t trust it.
“They are frightened,” he said. “There is that culture line.”