While some vaccination holdouts remain, ‘We’ve done really well,’ long-term care administrator care says

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Malia Thompson walks with Masao Kuniyoshi around the garden at Tuesday Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo.

Between 10% and 20% of employees and residents in some East Hawaii nursing and long-term care facilities remain unvaccinated against COVID-19.

In the early days of the state’s vaccine rollout, when availability was limited, health care personnel and long-term care facility residents were prioritized and among the first to be offered the inoculation.

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But in a statewide survey of member facilities — the results of which were reported in late May — the Healthcare Association of Hawaii found that 84% of staff in skilled nursing and long-term care facilities have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, up 6% from a survey in February.

Meanwhile, an average of 92% of residents were vaccinated, up 2% over February.

Many of the vaccination rates in long-term care facilities in East Hawaii are in line with the statewide survey.

At Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, 85 of 94 staff members, or 90% have been vaccinated, while 50 out of 56 residents, or 89%, are inoculated.

Meanwhile 37 of 43 employees, or 86%, of employees at Hilo Medical Center’s Extended Care Facility have received vaccines, as have 28 of 33 residents, or 84%.

Some 116 of 133 employees at Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua in Honokaa, or 87%, while 57 of 60 long-term care residents, or 95%, have been inoculated.

In Ka‘u, 49 of 57 staff members at Ka‘u Hospital, which has long-term care beds, have been vaccinated, while 14 of 16 residents, or 87%, have received vaccines.

The four facilities are part of Hawaii Health Systems Corp.’s East Hawaii Region.

“I feel like we’ve done really well,” said Denise Mackey, regional hospital administrator for critical access hospitals and long-term care.

Mackey said administrators continue to push vaccination.

“It’s not like we had this one little surge and just sort of stopped,” she said. “Any staff that were not vaccinated, we’ve continued to provide education. We’ve continued to encourage them and provide alternative options. When the (single-dose) Johnson & Johnson came out, we offered that. That way people had choices. I think that helped.”

According to Mackey, new regulations from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services state that only unvaccinated staff must be tested on a routine monthly basis.

“So every time we do those monthly tests, we once again provide education and offer the vaccine.”

Relaxing travel restrictions also helped sway staff who were still on the fence, said Mackey.

Mackey, however, said there were a lot of female staff members who opted not to get vaccinations on advice from their OB-GYNs.

Initially, there were questions of vaccine safety if someone was pregnant or breastfeeding, although evidence now suggests vaccines are safe for those who are, she explained.

Additionally, Mackey said there may be a “small subset of staff in probably every facility,” as well as some residents, who may not be interested in vaccines for other reasons.

“Vaccines hopefully will protect against severe illness and hopefully protect against hospitalization and death, but it’s not fool proof,” she said. “… I’m happy that we’re opening, I’m happy that we’re able to have more visitation in-house as well as outdoor. I’m happy that we’re able to have more group activities and kind of try to open our facilities, but there’s always that part of me that remains cautious, wanting to make sure we’re rolling things out at a measured pace and we’re doing things safely, so that we do it well. We promote quality of life, but we also have safety in mind and I think in the end we’re going to be successful.”

At Life Care Center of Hilo, about 80% of employees have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“We are concerned about vaccination rates among staff,” Executive Director Mark Mann said recently. “We have sent out informational videos distributed by Life Care Centers of America to employees via text messages. Of course, we respect each individual’s right to choose, but want to be sure we have given them all the information possible to make a well-educated decision.”

But those rates have seen an uptick.

“Initially, 65% of our staff were on board with vaccination,” Mann said. “Over time, those who were on the fence are slowly getting vaccinated. We are seeing a handful a week of individuals who had previously declined vaccination. As such, our staff rate is very close to the rate mentioned by HAH.”

As more people are vaccinated and doing well, some of those who were hesitant have lowered their guards, he said.

“We try to continue the discussion, provide education and continued awareness of the benefits — especially as a worker in a congregate setting.”

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Additionally, Mann said 191 of 201 residents, or about 95%, had been vaccinated as of late June.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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