Frank Hoerrle, a 92-year-old Coast Guard veteran, has had plenty of shots. The COVID-19 vaccine was no different.
“To me, it was another shot. In my life, I’ve had plenty of them,” Hoerrle said.
The former retired pipefitter was born in Germany and came to the U.S. with his family as a child. He remembers the Great Depression and was married to his wife, Helen, for 67 years before she passed away four years ago. The pandemic, to him, is another hardship to overcome.
“You have ups and downs; you cope with them,” Hoerrle said. “I believe my life in the last few months has been excellent.”
Hoerrle lives at Brookdale Westlake Village, a nursing home west of Cleveland, and was one of the first residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine there.
“I have no aftereffects. I feel just as good today as I did three to four months ago,” Hoerrle said, adding that he is a 60-year-old in the body of a 92-year-old.
Residents like Hoerrle have eagerly stepped up for the shot, hopeful for what herd immunity will mean for their life. And long-term care providers have jumped at the chance to reduce resident mortality and allow their facilities to leave the many challenges of a pandemic that has reduced occupancy rates, worsened staffing struggles and left as many as two-thirds of nursing homes at risk of closure. Preliminary data shows it’s working.
As of Jan. 21, 2,089,181 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered to staff and residents in long-term care through the federal government’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, which pairs nursing facilities with either Walgreens or CVS for vaccine administration. Both pharmacy chains said Thursday they expect to administer the first dose to all willing residents and staff in nursing homes by Jan. 25, and Walgreens has started vaccinations in assisted-care facilities in certain states.
Already, in states like Connecticut where all willing nursing home residents have received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, new cases among residents have declined for two weeks straight, a decrease of about 50%, the Hartford Courant found.
Brookdale CEO Cindy Baier said the vaccination clinics give the company a way to “significantly improve outcomes for residents” and provide them with “a chance to lead the way.”
“I’m hopeful our residents will really inspire others to roll up their sleeves and help protect the country,” Baier said. “What the vaccine gives us is a hope that we can return to a more normal environment.”
That so-called return-to-normal would mean nursing homes could reopen their doors to visitors, allow residents to socialize and go on outings and reinstill in the public a sense that these facilities are safe places for loved ones to live, leaders say.
While Hoerrle has remained positive throughout the past year, writing in his iPad and singing songs he makes up, his life has changed. His children live nearby but he hasn’t been able to see them; instead, he FaceTimes with them.
“I hope that all the other people take note and decide to get the vaccine. Otherwise, it’s not going to help us too much,” Hoerrle said.
Long-term care staff and residents have been prioritized for immunization based on how the virus has spread in congregate-living facilities and disproportionately affected the elderly. In the U.S., roughly 40% of COVID-related deaths have involved nursing home residents.
Carol Davis, an 86-year-old resident at Brookdale Westlake Village, said she primarily got the vaccine because she wanted to avoid getting COVID-19.
“I figured, ‘Let’s give it a shot,'” said Davis, who is known for being the only woman to play poker with the men at her facility. “I think it’s important to get it.”
Most long-term care providers are reporting high vaccination rates among residents, although staff have been more hesitant. The clinics are like “the flu clinic on steroids,” Baier said. “I’ve never seen that excitement around a flu clinic.”
M.A. Malone, a 71-year-old resident at Rose Villa Senior Living, a life plan community in Portland, Ore., said she was “very, very happy” to get the vaccine.
“I have no problem at all doing this. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for me to do,” said Malone, who used to work in broadcast media relations at Stanford Medical Center. “For the most part, I think everyone—the staff and, I think, the majority of patients—were welcoming it. I know the residents are.”
Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd said 80% of the facility’s staff and all but one or two nursing home residents volunteered to be vaccinated.
For Malone, the past year was a bit of a whirlwind. She broke her leg early last year and left her independent living home for rehabilitation in April 2020. For the past month or so, she’s been living in the health center, still unable to go for walks outside and say hi to her friends from a distance.
“I’m hoping that life for everybody opens up a little bit. It’s hard to see all of my compatriots here, it’s hard to watch that happen to them,” Malone said.
But Malone has respiratory issues, which, in her words, make her “a little more delicious” to the novel coronavirus.
“From that perspective, it’s really scary,” she said. “The virus definitely likes people like that.”