Vaccinations begin for local long-term care staff but not yet for residents

Krista Drobek, an assisted living nurse at Casey’s Pond in Steamboat Springs, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday from Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith. (UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center/courtesy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Krista Drobek was the first staff member from Casey’s Pond to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“It was exciting,” she said, after receiving the shot Wednesday morning. “And a little bit emotional — just knowing that we are on our way to ending this pandemic. And it was hopefully encouraging to the rest of the staff members, the residents and their families.”

About 40 staff members from Casey’s Pond in Steamboat Springs and 11 from The Haven in Hayden received vaccines Wednesday, part of a group of about 200 people that also included members of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, Steamboat Emergency Center and the dental community.

“It was amazing,” said Jeannie Schuettpelz, who works at The Haven. “I made history.”

The vaccines were made available as a result of a surplus from the nearly 700 doses received in the state’s initial allotment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine given to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Eli Nykamp, director of operations and COVID-19 incident commander at the medical center, said once the hospital finished with its state-designated 1A group, there were about 230 additional doses, many of those a result of getting six doses per vial as opposed to five. As a closely tracked, high-demand commodity, the hospital then went through the official process to transfer those surplus doses to Routt County Public Health.

“We saw it as a great opportunity to help the county jump ahead on the 1A’s in the community,” Nykamp said. “And long-term care is certainly a priority.”

Wednesday’s vaccination clinic was quickly assembled and made possible through a “fantastic partnership with UCHealth,” Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said during the Routt Board of Health meeting Wednesday.

Smith administered some of the shots herself, assisted by the skills of Director of Pharmacy Wes Hunter, who has now had a lot of practice thawing, mixing and filling syringes with the ultra-fragile Pfizer vaccines. The hospital also provided its facility, having become a well-oiled COVID-19 vaccination clinic over the past week.

Smith said some of the Fire and Rescue staff helped with observations, along with some volunteers from Lyon’s Corner Drug.

Drobek said she had no hesitancy about getting the vaccine.

“I listened to the recommendations and have done my research. It felt like the right thing to do,” she said.

Nor did Schuettpelz, who was the first to respond when the word went out to staff on Tuesday.

The county was also able to dip into some of the 1B group Wednesday, Smith said. Per the state, that group includes health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients, workers in home health/hospice and dental settings, EMS, firefighters, police, correctional workers, dispatchers, funeral services, other first responders and COVID-19 response personnel.

The first person in line to get vaccinated Wednesday was Steamboat Fire Rescue Chief Chuck Cerasoli.

“The first responder community is extremely grateful and humbled to begin receiving this vaccine so early on,” Cerasoli said in a news release. “The vaccine offers an early glimmer of hope and one more level of protection as we continue to fight the virus and serve our community. As these vaccines begin to roll out over the coming months, we urge everyone to keep looking out for each other, wear a facemask and maintain physical distance.”

Despite being in the state’s highest priority 1A group, the residents at Casey’s Pond and The Haven are still awaiting their turn.

Routt County Public Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington pointed to the stipulation from the federal government that long-term care facilities would be receiving vaccines through contracts with Walgreens and CVS pharmacies.

Initially, Walgreens reported clinics would begin at the long-term care facilities Monday. But this week, officials were informed the Monday clinics are now postponed for an unknown amount of time. Then, Walgreens announced it would begin Monday with the skilled nursing population, which includes some residents at Casey’s Pond, though none in assisted or independent living. It does not include any residents at The Haven.

The continued uncertainty is frustrating, Harrington said. And they knew ahead of time what Walgreens was getting would not cover everyone.

“We are committed to taking care of the most vulnerable population one way or another and are moving ahead with long-term care staff and residents,” he said.

Harrington noted the delay and confusion has nothing to do with local Walgreens employees, but is coming from higher-level directives.

Smith noted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Casey’s Pond and the Haven, whose residents account for 72% of the county’s deaths.

“Watching the residents not be able to see their families … It’s been very isolating for residents,” Drobek said. “We’ve stepped in to provide that comfort and extra encouragement. But it’s not the same as a daughter hugging her mom.”

Schuettpelz said her residents are feeling depressed, especially going into the holidays without hugs and kisses from family.

Drobek also noted the burden on staff. The possibility of bringing the virus into Casey’s Pond “is always in the back of your mind,” she said.

“It has made us a lot more cautious. And is hard on my family. I have three teens. I had to monitor them a little more — but they understand how important that is,” Drobek said. “What it came down to is that we were willing to make those changes to take care of the residents.”

The last staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 17.

Smith said they are expecting steady shipments of the vaccine to continue coming and will continue to work on strategies to supplement what Walgreens has been contracted to do.

The Haven Director Adrienne Idsal received her vaccine on Wednesday.

“I am so grateful to Roberta Smith at Routt County Public Health and to UCHealth for allowing some of The Haven staff to get vaccinated today,” she said in the release. “I feel overwhelmed with joy to be a part of this moment in history – it is the beginning of the end and this next chapter gives us a lot of reasons to be grateful.

“I view this vaccine as an essential step in our community’s health and I strongly encourage citizens to continue to follow public health guidelines — residents of The Haven and Casey’s Pond depend on you.”

From the beginning, Casey’s Pond Executive Director Brad Boatright said he has been overwhelmed by the support from the community. When Casey’s Pond had its first outbreak, he wasn’t sure if the response would be blame.

“It was a complete opposite reaction,” Boatright said. “The outpouring of support was more than I ever could have expected. We needed hundreds of others to join in on this — it took hundreds of people to get us through this. It was caring at an entirely different level than I have ever seen before.”

While Schuettpelz is appreciative for her own opportunity, she said it is very hard not to be able to give the residents at The Haven an answer about when they can get vaccinated.

“They are happy for us, but I can’t give them a definitive answer. It’s really sad,” she said.

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