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Metro East Nursing Homes Will Soon Have COVID Vaccines. Next Hurdle: Skeptical Residents, Staff

A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
A nurse holds a needle with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois.

Nurse Dambo Sakala was discussing doubts about the COVID-19 vaccine with colleagues at the Cahokia nursing home where he works just a few weeks ago, but now, he’s pleading with them to get vaccinated.

He told coworkers in early December that he was afraid the vaccine development was rushed. He worried it hadn’t been tested properly. He was concerned about side effects. Personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves had shielded him from the coronavirus for almost a year while he cared for COVID-19 patients at Autumn Meadows of Cahokia, so he thought he would take his chances without vaccination.

Then Sakala tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s been the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life,” he said last week from his Collinsville home. “... I’ve done some reading up on the vaccine. Even if there’s any kind of side effect, it is nothing like what I just went through.”

Sakala said he has gone back to the coworkers he swapped qualms with to urge them to take the vaccine when they get the chance. “A whole lot of my coworkers said they were not going to take it. I was just like them,” he said. “I’ve been talking to so many of my friends, ‘Please, please take it.’”

Vaccines began arriving at Illinois nursing homes and other long-term care facilities Monday. Medical experts and public health agencies recommend that residents and staff members get vaccinated.

For the long-term care industry, preparation for a vaccine included addressing skepticism, some local leaders said.

At Autumn Meadows, 12 of the 83 residents had refused the vaccine as of Wednesday, Administrator Kelly Barnes said. She did not have information on the number of employees who might be opting in or out.

In nearby Clinton County, New Baden’s Clinton Manor Living Center polled residents and employees about the vaccine in December and found acceptance was higher among residents than staff — 78% of the residents and 69% of workers requested the vaccine, according to company spokeswoman Samantha Lappe.

One company, BRIA Health Services with locations in Belleville and Cahokia, is offering $150 bonuses for vaccinated staff as an incentive, spokeswoman Natalie Bauer Luce wrote in an email to the Belleville News-Democrat.

Mostly, area facilities say they are trying to educate residents and workers to help them make a decision, including at Autumn Meadows, Clinton Manor, BRIA and Granite Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Walgreens and CVS pharmacies are scheduling a date to administer a vaccine to those who want it at each facility.

If anyone refuses the vaccine on the scheduled date, Gov. J.B. Pritzker says they’ll have to wait until the next phases of distribution in the coming year to get another chance at vaccination. After health care workers and long-term care residents, the next groups in line are “essential frontline workers,” including first responders, and people who are 75 years old or older, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that long-term care facilities be among the first places to receive some of the limited supply of vaccine because of the vulnerable population they serve: older people and people with existing medical conditions. These groups have a greater risk of severe illness from the disease.

Long-term care facilities are also risky settings for coronavirus transmission, with many people living together.

“I certainly want to encourage residents, their family members who are making decisions for them and all the staff at those long-term care facilities to take advantage of the fact that those vaccines will be brought to them in their long-term care facility and made available to them nearly immediately over the next four to eight weeks,” Pritzker said during a recent press briefing.

Two COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized two vaccines made by drug companies for emergency use in December: one from Pfizer and BioNTech and the other from Moderna. It did so because “there are no adequate, approved, available alternatives” and because “the known and potential benefits of the (products) outweigh the known and potential risks,” the federal agency stated in documents for vaccine recipients.

Both vaccines have been shown to help prevent COVID-19 in clinical trials, and they continue to be studied, according to the FDA.

About 20,000 people received at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 15,400 people received a dose of the Moderna vaccine during trials, the agency’s documents for vaccine recipients state.

Compare vaccine side effects with COVID-19 symptoms

The most common side effects to the vaccine that trial participants have reported are fever, headache and generally feeling unwell, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said during a press briefing. The CDC says these symptoms are actually signs the immune system is working.

COVID-19, on the other hand, can have serious and sometimes life-threatening complications, according to the CDC.

Autumn Meadows nurse Dambo Sakala’s experience with COVID-19 included severe pain, particularly in his back and stomach, and fatigue. He said he lost 10 pounds in two weeks.

“I felt like someone was trying to pull my spine out constantly. … It felt like someone was pouring hot coals in my stomach,” Sakala said. “... Take me as a cautionary tale and avoid what I went through and just take it (the vaccine). That’s my advice to people that might still be skeptical.”

Lexi Cortes is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Lexi Cortes is an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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