Frances Manheim, a 96-year-old resident of The William Breman Jewish Home, wanted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for the best of reasons.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world not to be able to see my family,” she said in a video clip provided by Jewish HomeLife. Seeing family through a screen has its limits. “I want to touch them. I want to feel them. I want to hold ‘em. I miss that.”
Manheim was among Breman Home residents and JHL staff at the Howell Mill Road campus Dec. 29 who received the first in a two-shot series of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer pharmaceuticals and BioNTech. The second shot will be administered three weeks later, Jan. 19.
The COVID-19 vaccine may not be that light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but it illuminates a path toward the exit. “Hope is a big word that comes to mind,” said Jeffrey Gopen, JHL chief operating officer.
The Howell Mill campus includes the Breman Home as well as The Zaban Tower, The Jewish Tower and The One Group, which provides home health services. All of the staff, “front line and back of the house, and administrators” will be vaccinated, Gopen said. In the coming weeks, residents and those receiving care elsewhere in the JHL system will be vaccinated.
“The way this typically enters the building is via the community. The mere fact that any of us goes home means that we have a potential risk of exposure and we’re trying to mitigate that as fast as possible,” Gopen said.
The state made elder care facilities a priority — along with first responders and health care workers — to receive the vaccine. According to Georgia Public Health Department Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, more than 37 percent of the state’s 9,700 confirmed COVID-19 deaths have been residents and staff of long-term care facilities, even though that population accounts for only 5 percent of infections statewide.
“It’s very hard to know exactly where we’re going from here and how fast this vaccine is going to make an impact locally and nationally, for any of us,” Gopen said. “It is the first leg on a journey to normalcy, that we have had any hope of, since this began.”
The vaccine was administered at the Howell Mill campus by personnel from the CVS pharmacy chain and will be delivered at The Cohen Home and Berman Commons by staff from the Walgreens chain. The government arranged for CVS and Walgreens to receive and administer the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines at elder care facilities.
While much of the public focus on the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” has been on vaccine research and development, the storage and delivery of the vaccine is a logistical challenge. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for example, must be stored at temperatures far colder than those of a regular freezer and administered within a limited time period.
Over the past nine-plus months, the novel coronavirus designated as COVID-19 has tested Jewish HomeLife. The Berman Commons assisted-living residence and the Breman Home, a skilled nursing facility, both endured outbreaks that struck residents and staff, including about a dozen deaths at the Breman Home linked to the virus. At present, Gopen said, one caregiver and one resident at Berman Commons have tested positive, as well as one resident at the Breman Home, who returned from a hospital where they might have been exposed to the virus, and one staff member, who will not return to work until testing negative.
Gopen declined to discuss how much money JHL has spent combatting COVID-19, but called the amount “significant, for any business.”
He said, “I think this company, the board, and this community supported this organization at such an amazingly high level.” Gopen mentioned the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, which provided JHL with grants totaling $348,000 from its COVID-19 emergency fund. “We spared no expense. . . . We continue to make sure that everything we do is as good as humanely possible. This is just part of the reality of this virus and this virus is surging, we’re seeing now.”
The agency overcame shortages of the personal protective equipment in the early weeks of the crisis, thanks to the efforts of its staff and, in one unique case, a Berman Commons resident’s family that had a personal connection in China. Cleaning protocols were enhanced. Group activities, including meals, were and remain suspended. Family visits were halted until they resumed in late June, under tight rules.
Throughout the crisis, the prospect of a vaccine remained tantalizingly in the future. “Definitely, this vaccine is truly the next step in protecting residents, our residents’ families, our staff, our staff families, and in essence we’re doing what’s right by the community. This is how we are going to move from this world of COVID,” Gopen said.
Nathan Posner contributed to this report.