For seniors at Channing House in downtown Palo Alto, the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines are bringing a major sense of relief.
Residents at the senior independent living and long-term care center received the first vaccinations in the two-shot series starting on Dec. 28. Some said they are looking forward to their second injections, which are expected as early as Monday or Tuesday.
The vaccines are the first step in bringing back a sense of normalcy, they said.
"It was a very uplifting and satisfying event," resident Frances Morse said. The only side effect she experienced was a sore arm for a day or two — the same side effect as she's had when getting a flu shot, she said.
After receiving her injection, she and other recipients sat for about 15 minutes to make sure they didn't have an adverse reaction. Morse said she didn't know of anyone who had any troubles, but staff from CVS pharmacies, which administered the injections, were on hand with EpiPens to counteract any potential allergic responses.
"There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie and euphoria: 'Oh — we're going to get this virus!'" she said, meaning they would conquer the deadly invader, which has so far killed at least 384,000 people in the U.S. and sickened more than 23 million Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.
Morse said the vaccinations are relieving her family's stress. Her grandchildren, ages 13 and 16, are the most delighted.
"They've been scared they're going to kill us. They are so hell bent on social distancing. It feels just wonderful," she said.
Most people in her building did opt to receive the vaccines, she said.
"There's a sense that we're building our own herd immunity in the building. It takes a little bit of the edge off forgetting your mask when you leave your apartment or go to the elevator," she said.
Morse and her husband spend "24/7" in their apartment except for when they go out for walks. The activities they used to do in person at Channing House are now accomplished on Zoom.
"It's really draggy. I have good days and bad days," she said of the isolation.
The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in April with a "Zoomaversary" party, displaying photographs and mementos to well-wishers. As a fringe benefit, they were able to invite people who would never have been able to attend because they live in other parts of the country, she said. She and another college friend also organized a Zoom reunion with their classmates.
But everyone by now is pretty much "Zoomed out," she said.
She and her husband are looking forward to the day when the Channing House dining room will reopen.
"It will be the most wonderful thing to get that sense of community back," she said.
Barbara Bowden credited a retired physician who lives at Channing House with helping residents to understand information about the vaccine: the epidemiology; how the vaccines were created and the benefits of being inoculated.
"So we understood long before we signed consent forms what was in the vaccine," she said. "The administrator (CEO Rhonda Bekkedahl) and assistant administrator have really been on top of things, and they work very closely with the county health department."
She said the assistant administrator secured the vaccines early in the rollout, making Channing House one of the first to be vaccinated by CVS, which, along with Walgreens, is administering the vaccines in most long-term care facilities.
When vaccine time came, the residents on her floor were called down two at a time. Bowden, a retired nurse, said she wanted to know how much experience the young man administering her shot had in giving vaccinations. She asked how he had learned to give vaccinations and how many doses he had administered in the past. She was satisfied that CVS had staff with plenty of experience, she said.
The first day hit a few snags. Bekkedahl said that CVS initially struggled with their database.
"It seemed to be a new system that they were not familiar with. We were one of the first vaccination clinics they had held. Then there were some problems receiving authorizations of the residents' insurance information."
The biggest issue was when the CVS staff began denying the vaccination to residents who had older Medicare cards, which have only numbers and not a combination of numbers and letters.
"That is when I began contacting anyone I thought might have a channel to someone who could direct the onsite CVS team that this was not acceptable," she said.
Among those she contacted were LeadingAge California, nonprofit advocacy group for senior living and care, which contacted LeadingAge National, which contacted CVS administrators. Bekkedahl also called the California Assisted Living Association, which contacted the CVS leadership in California. The advocacy organizations also contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.
"My argument was that the presence of a Medicare card should not be a condition of receiving the vaccine in a skilled nursing facility. Administering the life-saving vaccine should be the first priority. Working out the insurance and paperwork issues should be secondary," Bekkedahl said in an email.
On the second day of vaccinations, the CVS onsite supervisor said he had been told they would work out the insurance coverage issues later.
In total, CVS administered approximately 100 vaccinations on the first day and about 230 on the second, Bekkedahl said.
Bowden and Morse said they plan to continue to exercise safety precautions after they get their second doses. Morse said she knows that getting the vaccines isn't foolproof. She and her husband plan to keep wearing their masks and will follow other safety protocols in the months after they receive the second vaccine.
"It's one small step toward defeating this nasty virus," she said of the vaccinations.
Bowden said she doesn't feel she is free to roam. She'll continue to wear her mask when she leaves her apartment.
"I have a certain amount of risk. I'm in my 80s. I still won't be able to go over and wrestle with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When the Giants start playing, I will probably wear a mask at the game and on the train," she said.
But she is looking forward to when life becomes more normal. Perhaps, by this summer, she'll travel again, she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.