Cindy Rodriguez: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Cindy Rodriguez in for Tanzina Vega. We're continuing our conversation about the rollout of the corona virus vaccine to long-term care facilities like nursing or assisted living homes. As you've heard, around 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths in this country have been linked to these types of facilities and it's hitting the state of West Virginia hard.
Sundale Nursing Home in Morgantown, West Virginia, was the first nursing home in the state to be hit with an outbreak of the virus back in March. Five residents died there. Last month, Sundale also became the first nursing home in West Virginia to receive the vaccine. Michael Hicks is the CEO of Sundale and has been on the ground there since the outbreak in March. He joins me now. Michael, thank you so much for being here.
Michael Hicks: Thank you very much, Cindy. It's a pleasure.
Cindy: The deaths of so many nursing home residents has been one of the biggest tragedies of the pandemic. Tell us what those first few weeks of the outbreak were like at Sundale.
Michael: Not only were we the first facility in the state to have the corona virus, we had the first community spread case in West Virginia. All other cases prior to that were associated with travel, and so to have it in the facility-- I can still remember when I got the text message on Sunday the 22nd, that one of our residents had tested positive. Just a sinking feeling. The staff were just extremely hesitant also, not knowing what to do, how contagious this is. The only thing that we'd heard is some of the stories from the state of Washington that had been hit prior to that, and of course what was going on in Europe and Italy. Sundale is a 100-bed facility and we had close to 100 people at that time. Our medical director, I can't say enough about him.
Carl Schrader was the first person to actually request that all residents and staff be tested, and at that time, that was just completely unheard of. Testing supplies were extremely limited, as were the labs to process, but he held out and worked with West Virginia University. We were able to secure enough kits. The national guard came up and tested everyone. We had a total of 21 residents that had tested positive and nine staff members. The thing is, 12 of the 21 were asymptomatic, and so that's how it spreads so quickly in a nursing facility.
Cindy: Let's talk now a little bit about the vaccine. You've gotten the vaccine now. How many people have you vaccinated and who are you vaccinating first? The residents or the staff?
Michael: Residents actually. As a matter of fact, the very first person was the first person to contract the virus. Her O2 stats had dropped. She was at Ruby Memorial Hospital, that's with WVU. She was in ICU and on a ventilator. She was probably on the ventilator for about, I'm thinking a little more than a week. The thing that's scary about that is, if you're on a ventilator for any extended period of time, chances are you don't get off that ventilator. She started breathing above the vent, so they were weaning her off the ventilator. She came back to us at Sundale, and she was the first person to receive the vaccine. We had 180 doses. We vaccinated 60 of our residents at that time.
Cindy: Did you lock down and was the isolation very hard for residents, and does the vaccine now mean that you can bring in visitors?
Michael: No. The community spread in Morgantown is still significant. In the county actually. Most of the counties in West Virginia are in a red status. We cannot open up the doors yet, but it does give us hope.
Cindy: I see. What about staff members?
Michael: We have about 50% of our staff have taken the vaccine. I wish it were more and I'm going out and I'm talking with them whenever I get the opportunity, but there are some people that just have some-- There are still some concerns about long-term effects, but in understanding the method in which this vaccine works, it's just-- This is not the vaccine that I grew up with, where they inject you with a dead virus or a weakened virus and your system builds immunity. This is completely different and I marvel at the technology. Apparently this has been used for about the last 10 years to deliver types of chemotherapy as well.
Cindy: Michael, how have the residents been dealing with the isolation and the separation from their families? Because that has to be very difficult on them.
Michael: This has been probably nine months of the most difficult period of time that I can remember. Our residents, bless their hearts. We do family zoom meetings. We do FaceTime. We do anything that we can to brighten their spirits, and especially at this time, Christmas and new year. Our activity staff decorated the facility just to the nine. It was great. Going around, we play bingo, going down the hallways. If you can imagine someone with a bull horn at one end of the hallway, calling out numbers.
We just do anything that we can to brighten their spirits but it's so difficult. We do have some family meetings. At the end of our buildings, we have a little vestibule where families can come in and then there's a window separating them, but we do have microphones on both sides so that they can at least talk with their family members and see them. It's not the same thing as having the touch or having a hug. Sometimes it just breaks your heart but we're doing what we can to lift their spirits in any way possible.
Cindy: Many nursing homes entered into contracts with CVS and Walgreens. Did you do that?
Michael: No, we did not. That's a really great question. Again, kudos to Governor Justice. Had we gone with the federal plan, which is what we were in originally, we would not have had-- There are some states that have not received the vaccine yet that are in the federal plan. As of today, all nursing homes in West Virginia and assisted livings have already had their first vaccination. As a matter of fact, this week, we are having our second clinics, so we're having that second shot. It's been 21 days.
By doing this, it was hectic. It was chaotic. Things were moving so fast and then changing the next day. It was a little frustrating, but with the help of the National Guard, they were able to deliver the vaccines to five hubs in West Virginia and we were lucky enough being here in Morgantown with WVU. WVU Medicine is one of the hubs that can store it at an ultra cold fashion. Kudos to everyone. It's been hectic but it's been great. The mood of the residents when we had the first vaccine clinic, it was like a party. That was probably one of the best moments they've had in the last nine months.
Cindy: Michael Hicks is the CEO of Sundale Nursing Home in West Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us.
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