‘She’s living for that’: Elderly wait in anticipation as vaccination plan unrolls for Wisconsin’s long term care population

MADISON, Wis.–Veronica King at St. Mary’s Care Center in Madison has waited all year to resume playing bingo with others in the facility. Eat together. See her son, who requires professional care.

“She has very few people in the world. In fact, none other than myself.”

Paul Williams is that person, he said. A retired UW-Madison professor of plant pathology, Veronica was his secretary for 45 years. Now, he’s her closest friend and her health care power of attorney. A lifetime of friendship and comradery behind them, this year they’ve only been connected by a phone.

“I depended on her all my professional life,” he reflected. “Now I can do a little to give back…and I enjoy that.” He’s enjoyed doing her shopping, and fondly talks about her love for TV and country music. They’ve had the conversation about getting a vaccine, he said. She’s all for it. It’s a way to find a path back to normal for residents inside the facility to mingle again, to live with a little less anxiety. And it’s the path towards finally see her son again.

“She’s living for that.”

Wisconsin’s plan to vaccinate its long term care population of almost 60,000 residents, as well as the staff members who care for them, invoked the federal program on Monday in partnership with major pharmacies for managing the receiving and administering of vaccines to nursing homes, assisted living, and other elderly care facilities. Walgreens and CVS in Wisconsin will receive shipments, store, and travel to the long term care facilities to give the vaccine in a program scheduled to run for two months, according to the CDC.

Set to begin January 28, DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm estimates that about a quarter of long term care facilities in the state will have vaccines within the first week. It’s unclear what the timeline will be from there for getting everyone who wants a vaccination in Wisconsin’s approximately 5,000 facilities, the CEO of Wisconsin’s largest long term care facility association said.

“The button’s been pushed, the system’s in place, now what we’re waiting for is the shipment of the Moderna vaccine to the state institutional pharmacy providers,” John Sauer with LeadingAge Wisconsin said. “It’s a mammoth undertaking, and it is full of logistical complexities, and that’s what people are really working around the clock to try and figure out.”

The Moderna vaccine, cleared by a federal expert panel for emergency authorization by the FDA on Thursday, will be the one used for long term care in Wisconsin, according to the DHS. For the next two weeks, a top priority is educating staff and residents on the process and getting agreements from residents or their legal guardians, in the cases of residents unable to make their own health decisions.

“This has gone on far too long,” Sauer noted. “The virus is the villain; we need to eradicate it.”

Executive Director of Wickshire Senior Living in Madison, Sira Nsibirwa, said they’re anticipating vaccinations for their residents by the first week of January and are coordinating with CVS for their team of pharmacists to vaccinate staff and residents at the facility. As a senior living facility, they fall after nursing homes in priority level under the federal plan which plans to provide doses to nursing homes first.

“Hopefully with that, we’ll be back to normalcy by spring or summer,” Nsibirwa said. “I’ve promised them we’re gonna have a big party once Covid is done.”

Sauer has concerns about how long term vaccination efforts for long term care providers will continue once the federal program expires. It’s unclear how vaccinations for staff turnover or incoming residents will be handled–all issues that will take continued work into 2021, he said.

“It’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.