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Nation & World

Washington Nursing Homes Still Waiting For Promised COVID-19 Vaccine Doses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Washington state, like most other places in the U.S., senior citizens and their caregivers are some of the first in line for coronavirus vaccines. Doses have been arriving for weeks, but many people are still waiting to get them. From member station KUOW, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch reports.

ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH, BYLINE: Marguerite Laskares is in assisted living in Seattle. To keep her safe from COVID-19, she basically has to stay in her room all day. Sometimes a friend stands across from her window in the next building over, and they chat by phone.

MARGUERITE LASKARES: I have a little bit of a sense of humor, and I would say, well, I tell you what. Maybe we can run a rope here, and I can sit in a basket and come over within six feet. Maybe we could see each other a little bit better.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Still, it's isolating.

LASKARES: Is it easy? No. Have there been ups and downs in my days? Yes. Have I cried? Yes.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: In Washington state, a program to vaccinate residents and staff of long-term care facilities started the last week of December. That's under a federal partnership with pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens. Some senior communities got their shots then, but others didn't. And some say they were left in the dark about why there's a holdup, including North Haven Assisted Living, where Laskares lives. Mary Quarterman is the director there.

MARY QUARTERMAN: We've held on, held on, held on. And now to get to this point and feel like this roadblock was there was just very disheartening.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: At North Haven, about 40 people are in assisted living, and more than 200 are in independent living apartments. In mid-December, Quarterman signed up her facility for the federal program. Then the vaccination's start date came and went, and North Haven didn't hear anything. Quarterman reached out to her point person at Walgreens, who it turns out no longer worked there.

QUARTERMAN: I emailed them, and it bounced back. So then I went back and tried calling our original contact and just got taken through a phone tree of dead ends.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Residents and Quarterman were frustrated.

QUARTERMAN: Even just to have somebody say, we're working behind here; it's going to be another couple of weeks before we can get to you, but we haven't forgotten about you.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: CVS and Walgreens declined interview requests, but in an emailed statement, CVS says vaccinations are on track. Walgreens did not answer questions about specific retirement homes. Half a dozen other senior living communities in western Washington that KUOW contacted were also frustrated with a lack of communication from CVS and Walgreens. Many places have outbreaks and are seeing on the news that others are getting vaccinated.

MICHELE ROBERTS: It has been a slower start than, I think, ideally, we all want to see.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Michele Roberts heads COVID vaccine planning with the Washington State Department of Health. She says it just takes time. More than 2,000 senior homes in the state have signed up with a federal program.

ROBERTS: All those home calls to schedule and visits can't happen on the same day or the same week.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Roberts says doing the injections also takes more time in nursing homes.

ROBERTS: They often have to go room by room, which is a very much slower pace than it is having employees who can show up at a specific time or potentially stand in line in a socially distanced way.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: At the beginning of January, Washington state had given CVS and Walgreens close to 100,000 doses of the vaccines, but the state does not know how many doses the pharmacies have administered. Despite the delays, in north Seattle, assisted living resident Marguerite Laskares is feeling hopeful about the vaccine.

LASKARES: First thing I want to do is go to the beach and put my feet in the sand and smell the salt air.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Maybe even get a hamburger.

LASKARES: Yeah, that's the first thing I want to do.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The facility where she lives did finally hear back from Walgreens. Vaccinations are scheduled to start Saturday, January 16.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD NOTHING SONG, "PARADISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.