Montgomery Co. officials discuss vaccine plans for long-term care facilities

Montgomery County’s health officials hope a coronavirus vaccine could be ready for distribution within weeks — with the first doses going to residents and staffers who work at long-term care facilities.

There are dozens of those types of facilities around the populous Maryland county, and the logistics of getting a vaccine distributed to those facilities are already being lined up.

Much of the work will be done by a pair of nationally known pharmacies, under guidance issued by the federal government.

“CVS and Walgreens will schedule and coordinate on-site clinic dates directly with each facility,” said Enrico Lachica, a clinical nurse administrator with Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, Licensure and Regulatory Division. “It’s anticipated that three total visits over approximately two months will likely be needed,” depending on the vaccine dosage instructions.

The vaccines will be distributed for free, and the pharmacies will be in charge of coordinating the entire process, including any data submissions required. Lachica said all of the county’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have registered for the program.

But it’s not clear whether nursing home and assisted-living employees will be required to receive a vaccine in the same way the law says they must receive an annual flu shot. That’s a question that Councilman Craig Rice posed to Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles.

“That is still being discussed at this time,” said Gayles. To that response, Rice said it was concerning.

It’s something Rice suggested he’ll be talking about with state leaders at the legislative level and in the governor’s office, since he also represents the county on the influential Maryland Association of Counties.

“There’s still potential opportunity for outbreaks if folks refuse to take the COVID vaccination and are exposed and then bring that into vulnerable populations,” Rice said.

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About half of all of Montgomery County’s COVID-19-related deaths this year have involved residents at these types of elder-care facilities.

County officials and leaders admitted there have been both successes and failures when it comes to the efforts made to battle the coronavirus.

County health department managers said the county has worked with facilities to improve care and accommodations during the pandemic — citing in particular efforts made by the agency’s ombudsman program to help a patient with ALS better communicate with family, as well as work that allowed a married couple to participate in religious services outside of what their religious-affiliated facility catered to.

But there were also failures noted during the department’s inspections, according to Eileen Bennett, who supervises the ombudsman program at the health department. For example, one resident disappeared from a facility but was later located, she said.

Another issue: A lack of qualified staff. “Too many times,” when ombudsman staff made unannounced visits to facilities, they would discover “that there are no qualified caregivers in those homes, with residents being there by themselves even though they’re required to have caregivers on site,” Bennett said.

In one case this year that she said stuck out to her, the owner of the facility, who was also a registered nurse, was not on-site but at their nursing job during the unannounced visit.

“If that didn’t shock you, I have lots of other stories that do,” said Bennett. She told Montgomery County Council members she would share them at another time.

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