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Berkshire Healthcare Says Nursing Home Vaccination Campaign Exceeds National Average

A map of Berkshire Healthcare locations in Massachusetts
Berkshire Healthcare
A map of Berkshire Healthcare locations in Massachusetts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a grim toll on the nursing homes of Berkshire County. Facilities managed by Berkshire Healthcare like Hillcrest Commons in Pittsfield and Williamstown Commons in Williamstown have reported scores of resident deaths. But now there is some optimism. Spokesperson Lisa Gaudet says the company has completed two rounds of vaccinations in its nursing homes through a federal program administered by CVS and Walgreens, with a third expected to be finished by early March. She tells WAMC Josh Landes that their numbers exceed national averages, but some staffers remain skeptical of the vaccine.

GAUDET: Our rates for the same period as a CDC study that was conducted measuring the number of residents across the nation and staff across the nation that were vaccinated, from mid-December to mid-January, our rates exceed those. We are at 82% of our residents for that same timeframe accepting the vaccine in comparison to the federal or national numbers of 77%. So we are above that by more than 5%. And then, for our staff here in Berkshire County, 67% of our staff were vaccinated during the first clinics that were held in comparison to about 37.5% of nursing home staff across the nation. So we're pleased that we have staff that understood the importance of the vaccine and availed themselves of the opportunity to get it. And those numbers have continued to increase as we've made our way through the second clinic timeframes and head into the third clinics.

WAMC: What's working about the rollout? What have you learned so far that's allowing you to stay ahead of the national curve for vaccinations?

I think what we learned really early was that social media and fear and skepticism can play heavily on the minds of our staff, who oftentimes are listening to or observing or participating in social media platforms where there could be misinformation, or there could be not all of the information that they need. So we really embarked on a process with our leaders at our local affiliates to really have one-to-one conversations with our staff to encourage them to talk with us about what was the information they were hearing. And it gave us the opportunity to find places where we could educate them and share accurate information with them. And we also just continued to encourage them to come forward if they heard additional information so that we could again, support that relationship and support the education that we needed to do with our own staff. Interestingly, with our residents, residents who in in nursing homes are generally 75 years or older, largely in their 80s have lived through periods of time where other diseases have really played havoc with the lives of themselves or their families are much more willing to take these vaccines and really had very little hesitation about it at all. So that was an interesting contrast to a younger population of people that are looking at whether or not to get vaccinated compared to our residents who are much older and felt like it was the right thing for them to do.

What goes into the last push to get those numbers up to 100%?

You know, I think it's just continuing to have those conversations, continuing to make sure that we're making it easy for people and, you know, if helping them understand that they may experience some side effects after the second shot or even the first shot. And, you know, being an understanding organization that allows them the time off that they might need in order to have a day or two where they're not feeling particularly well. And just saying that that's okay, we know that that might happen. We still want you to have the vaccine, and we'll work with you so that you can get back to work once you're feeling better. And I think that coupled with just knowing that we all want to do the right thing for our residents and for each other have been the, I think, the themes that have been part of our conversations with our staff and our residents.

What happens if a resident or staff member opts to not get the vaccine?

It is their right to not take a vaccine. And so again, we just tried to make sure that we're making ourselves available to them should they decide to change their mind, we're keeping them informed of opportunities to get those vaccines. So as we finish out our third clinics, we will not be having CVS and Walgreens coming back into nursing homes to administer of those vaccines. So we are working hard to make sure that we are alerting our staff around other opportunities that they can avail themselves of in the community. And I think Berkshire County has done a great job of really, particularly the site at BCC and other locations throughout Berkshire County, of making it easy for people to be able to get their vaccines and so we're making sure that we're connecting staff to that information so that if they change their mind, they know that it's a pretty easy thing for them to move ahead with.

Do you have a sense at this time about how many staff members or residents percentage wise might not ever ultimately opt to take the vaccine?

You know, interestingly, I think that time will tell. A lot of folks, as we've talked to them about what's behind their reasons for not wanting to take the vaccine right now, in particular, I would say more so with staff, it's for some folks, it's just they don't want to be the first ones out of the gate. They want to see how their colleagues do and how others do and what those side effects are like, and we're finding that more and more of them are starting to get to a place where they're more willing to take the vaccine because they're not seeing what I think they may have imagined might have been more serious side effects. And these are also folks who have dealt on the frontlines with COVID and caring for individuals who have had COVID and have been exposed themselves to COVID. So I think they're starting to really weigh the benefit of a day or two of feeling a little uncomfortable is probably worth going through as opposed to being sick and maybe having some long term effects from COVID itself. So, again, on our second clinics, we've seen those numbers increase. We have some facilities that have almost 93% of their staff that have taken the vaccine. So that's very encouraging. And we have other buildings that are closer to 80%. So again, smaller numbers, but we still are working to encourage them to take those vaccines or make it easy for them to do so.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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