Our nation has experienced an agonizing nine months as millions of people have been infected with COVID-19 and hundreds of thousands have died. So, it was an emotional moment this past week as we watched the first Americans receive the highly anticipated COVID-19 vaccine.
As I wrote recently, it is also welcome news that healthcare workers and those living in long-term care (LTC) facilities will be prioritized for the vaccination rollout. These two groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID infections, and LTC residents have accounted for a painfully large percentage of deaths.
But what about senior living residents who live independently, such as in a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community)? Will they also receive priority, alongside those in assisted living and nursing homes? The answer is less clear.
A state-by-state decision
The CDC released its latest guidance over the weekend about how to prioritize vaccine recipients. However, the ultimate decision about vaccine rollout and the order in which various groups will receive it rests with individual states, and some states have been more precise and detailed with their vaccine communications than others.
For example, in Florida, the state health department, in partnership with pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, is dispatching “strike teams” into LTC facilities. They will vaccinate nursing home and assisted living residents who are among those with the highest risk of contracting the disease and suffering serious complications.
Yet, Florida’s plan does not appear to specify the timeline for vaccinating seniors who are living independently, but on the same campus as LTC residents, such is the case with a CCRC.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Health has laid out a detailed priority for who will get vaccinated first, though when is a little less clear.
In that state, healthcare providers and LTC residents also will be at the top of the list, falling into “Phase 1A.” They will get the first doses of vaccine, which are currently arriving. Seniors living in an independent living community, as well as those age 65 and over, and those with high-risk health conditions, fall into “Phase 1B,” though the timeline for this group’s vaccination is not yet known as vaccine quantity and distribution is still being determined.
In Kansas, the state is communicating that not only will healthcare workers and LTC residents be at the top of their vaccination list, so will a number of other “high risk” groups.
Again, working in partnership with Walgreens and CVS, Kansas residents of LTC facilities, people age 65 or older, and people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as those with underlying medical conditions like cancer, heart conditions, obesity, and chronic kidney disease, are at the front of the vaccination line. Additionally, Kansas is more clear when it comes to vaccinations for residents of independent living. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, residents who are part of a CCRC would be considered in the group with long-term care residents eligible for the initial vaccines.
The CCRC “gray area” for the COVID-19 vaccine
This is just a sampling of how various states are planning to prioritize who gets the COVID-19 vaccine and when; your state may have a different plan in place. This is obviously an enormous undertaking with many logistical and ethical questions. But I wonder if the state-by-state decisions may be overlooking the sometimes-gray area between independent living and assisted living, especially for those who live in a CCRC.
For example, one independent living resident of a CCRC may still be very healthy and active, while another could be much closer to needing long-term care services. Perhaps they’ve even hired a caregiver to come into their apartment or villa to assist with their specific care needs. Simply because they physically live in an independent living unit, would they not get the vaccine, versus someone of a similarly frail condition who is living in the assisted living portion of the community? The vaccination priority in a case like this is obviously not so black and white.
Independent seniors eager for their shot
In many states, there’s no definitive answer about when independent living residents of CCRCs will have the chance to roll-up their sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine, though I know many are eager to get their shot.
I think this issue is really about whether retirement communities across the nation are getting clear guidance from their state, and then whether residents are receiving adequate communication from management. It appears some state health departments are articulating their plans on this rollout better than others, as we saw in the examples above. But there are also hiccups in the information states are getting from the federal government, in seems.
For instance, I read in my local paper here in Raleigh, North Carolina, that the communication from federal to state governments about the number of vaccines coming and when has not been very clear, so some states may not be in position to even say when independent-living CCRC residents will be able to get their COVID-19 vaccination. But the good news is that vaccines are on the way, and hopefully soon.
This year has tested our nation in countless ways. But with not one but two COVID-19 vaccines now approved by the FDA for emergency use, I’m hopeful that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.