9 Investigates: Tracking COVID-19 vaccines in long-term care facilities

9 Investigates: Tracking COVID-19 vaccines in long-term care facilities

North Carolina has shared information about those who received the COVID-19 vaccine as the push to vaccinate everyone against the virus has continued. The data includes statewide information on gender, race, and ethnicity, but there isn’t a clear picture about people in long-term care facilities.

More than 3,500 people have died of COVID-19 inside state nursing homes since the start of the pandemic. Residents and employees in long-term care facilities are at the top of the vaccine priority list but not every resident and employee has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.

The federal government is in charge of vaccinations in most long-term care facilities, but Channel 9 anchor Allison Latos found that it’s not easy to determine who is willing to be vaccinated.

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“I want to go to a grocery store again,” said Billie Jean, an 83-year-old nursing home resident. “I want to cook again and I want to have more time with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are really important to me.”

Like a lot of us, Jean dreams of doing ordinary things again. Because of the pandemic, she wears a mask and avoids her neighbors inside Elmcroft of Little Avenue, a senior living facility in south Charlotte.

“I definitely don’t want the virus,” Jean said. “You have the potential to die and nobody wants to do that.”

Now, she has another tool to stay healthy -- the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I could not wait to take it,” Jean said. “I put it on my calendar.”

Residents and workers at long-term care facilities were among the first to be offered the vaccine. Through partnerships with Walgreens and CVS, the federal government is in charge of administering shots inside most of those facilities.

Even though both groups of people are eligible to get the vaccine, there is some reluctance to get the shot.

Janet Budu is a supervisor at Elmcroft. She said some people in her profession are worried about the vaccine’s long-term effects.

“They want to see what the outcome is,” Budu said.

The problem is, the state does not have a specific breakdown on how many people in long-term care facilities are refusing the vaccine.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services dashboard shows more than 167,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered within long-term care facilities as of Wednesday.

NC Rep. Carla Cunningham, vice-chair of the House’s health committee, sees a problem with the state’s long-term care facility data.

“They don’t look at race, ethnicity,” Cunningham said.

She says that information for both staff and residents should be tracked for better education and outreach efforts.

“The state still needs that data so they can dive in and make sure those settings are kept safe,” Cunningham said.

Channel 9 emailed 70 long-term care facilities in Mecklenburg County that had at least one COVID-19 outbreak. We asked how many residents and employees have been vaccinated against the virus.

Some wouldn’t tell us, saying, “We are not sharing numbers...” or “We would rather not share exact numbers...”

Elmcroft of Little Avenue has had two outbreaks of COVID-19 and executive director Tara Benson says 30% of its workers took the vaccine at the first three clinics.

“It was heart-wrenching when it first entered our community,” Benson said.

Elmcroft will soon mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for its employees. We asked what would happen if an employee chooses not to get vaccinated by June 1.

“They are making the choice to work elsewhere,” Benson said.

She expects more long-term care facilities will require the vaccine for their employees to keep residents like Jean safe until the pandemic is over for all of us.

“I haven’t had a hug in over a year,” Jean said. “I told my daughters when this thing is lifted, look out!”

Some long-term care facilities opted out of the federal vaccine program and rely on county health departments instead. Channel 9 has asked Mecklenburg County officials if they keep track of the residents and staff they’ve vaccinated.

Long-term care facilities across NC to start receiving COVID-19 vaccine