As distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine begins, Long Island nursing homes are still waiting for federal, state and pharmacy direction on how and when administration of the vaccine can begin. Newsday spoke with Stuart B. Almer, CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, about questions that need to be answered. Credit: Zoom

Coronavirus vaccines may be administered at New York nursing homes as soon as Dec. 21, nursing home officials said Thursday.

State Health Department officials Thursday afternoon held a teleconference with nursing home representatives on providing the vaccines to their residents and staffs, the first people in New York slated to receive them.

"There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered," said Stuart B. Almer, president and CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, which operates Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack and has 375 residents and about 800 employees.

Almer spoke shortly after a U.S. government advisory panel of experts gave its approval to the vaccine from Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow the committee's recommendations.

An email that Gurwin sent to residents' families and employees Thursday evening said state officials told nursing homes that the vaccine will be available "on or around December 21, and rollout may take as long as several weeks for the first dose to reach all nursing homes."

Stuart B. Almer, president and CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System.

Stuart B. Almer, president and CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin/Debbie Egan-Chin

Nursing home officials said outstanding questions include whether vaccinated and non-vaccinated residents would be segregated, and whether certain staff members — such as those who have direct contact with residents — will be vaccinated before other employees.

Health department officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday evening, but a health department statement Wednesday said, "We will continue to communicate with nursing homes and other local partners on specifics throughout the delivery and implementation processes."

Pharmacies' key role

Almer said he also is awaiting instructions on vaccine distribution from Walgreens, the pharmacy that will administer the vaccinations for Gurwin.

CVS is the other primary pharmacy partner in the federal program to vaccinate nursing home residents, of which New York is part.

Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees vaccine-distribution logistics for the federal government, said during a news conference Wednesday that "the CDC, Walgreens and CVS are working those plans right now."

Walgreens and CVS employees will travel to nursing homes to administer vaccines there.

Once the vaccines make it to nursing homes, residents such as Gurwin’s Ellie Siperowitz, 88, will be waiting. She said that by getting vaccinated, "I know that [the virus] won’t kill me. … I think it’s our only hope for conquering this virus."

Gurwin resident Ellie Siperowitz, 88, said that by getting vaccinated,...

Gurwin resident Ellie Siperowitz, 88, said that by getting vaccinated, "I know that [the virus] won't kill me .... I think it's our only hope for conquering this virus." Credit: Ellie Siperowitz via Zoom

Gurwin resident Scott Gingold, 40, who has Lou Gehrig's disease and is quadriplegic, said a vaccine is "my best chance at staying healthy given my condition," which makes him more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19.

Gingold said through a computerized voice that he hopes the vaccine will allow for the resumption of visits from his wife, 8-year-old daughter and parents.

"I got so used to my family coming regularly that when it stopped it was very lonely and depressing," he said.

The vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, the latter which is expected to come before the FDA panel next week, have a two-dose regimen, with the second dose for Pfizer 21 days later and for Moderna 28 days later. The early shipments to the nursing homes will be of the Pfizer vaccine, Almer said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said there are enough vaccines in the state’s initial federal allocation for all nursing home residents and staff who want to get vaccinated.

Logistical hurdles ahead

The state clarified Thursday that all residents of nursing homes, including those there for short-term rehabilitation that can last from weeks to months, are eligible for the first vaccinations, said Christopher Lynch, deputy executive director of the Northwell Health Orzac Center for Rehabilitation in Valley Stream.

If someone leaves the nursing home, the facility is responsible for bringing that person back for a second dose, nursing home representatives were told.

But, Lynch said, turnover of short-term beds is high, and, he asked, "What’s the plan going to be for those new people who come in, and is there also going to be some sort of national database that’s going to say when somebody comes into my facility" if they’re vaccinated?

Lynch said state officials said each pharmacy will visit nursing homes three times for both doses.

Jim Clyne, CEO of LeadingAge New York, which represents more than 600 nonprofit facilities for older adults, said that could be problematic if too many employees simultaneously have vaccine side effects and temporarily can’t work.

And, he said, "It underestimates the logistical issue of the fact you’ve got workers who work three shifts all different days. It’s not necessarily that easy to get everybody in on the days they [the pharmacies] pick. If you work the night shift and then you’re sleeping when they’re doing the vaccine immunizations, you might not make it."

A CVS web page for nursing homes says the pharmacy will determine days and times.

The CDC said in October that in addition to Walgreens and CVS, a facility’s "existing LTC [long-term care] pharmacy" could administer the vaccine.

Brenda Burton, administrator of Maria Regina in Brentwood, didn’t find out until Monday that the independent pharmacy the nursing and rehabilitation center uses is not eligible for vaccine administration, so she must use the "backup" she had selected in a CDC survey, CVS.

Cuomo said Dec. 2 that "you can’t mandate that somebody takes the vaccine" and, noting polls showing widespread resistance to taking the vaccines, vowed a public-education campaign to combat skepticism.

Gurwin will educate its own residents and employees, Almer said.

"Once those who volunteer take it — and hopefully we see everyone is doing well as a result, and is safe and protected — then others will be more likely to want to take it," he said.

With AP

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