Vaccinations for COVID-19 will ramp up for Decatur Morgan Hospital staff and a vulnerable group of senior citizens, but a local nursing home operator questioned if the general public should be a higher priority for vaccines because that's where virus spread originates.

Decatur Morgan Hospital, which began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to staff members last week, received a shipment of the Moderna vaccine Wednesday. However, the hospital won't begin administering the Moderna doses until next week.

Vaccines will start soon for local nursing homes, with some in the state planning vaccinations Monday. Frank Brown, owner and CEO of USA Healthcare, the parent company of Decatur Health and Rehabilitation and Falkville Health Care Center, said his residents will start receiving the Pfizer vaccine Jan. 5. He said his residents aren't responsible for the virus spread.

"We ought to vaccinate the general public first," he said. "They're not being responsible with the COVID virus. Yes, we’ve got the most vulnerable people, but we’re not developing it in the nursing homes.

"If we’re going to beat this virus, everyone will need to start wearing a mask and get vaccinated.”

Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said she understands Brown’s reasoning on vaccine priority but said the vulnerability of the nursing home residents outweighs any argument.

“Deciding who gets the vaccine first is one of hardest, most horrendous decisions health care experts have had to make,” Smith said Wednesday. “Forty percent of those dying from COVID-related causes are nursing home residents, and 77% of the people dying are over 65. Now with the vaccine, we can’t let those people die. They need to be high on the priority list.”

Smith added the public should continue to wear masks, socially distance and wash their hands.

“The middle group (public) should not be getting the vaccine first,” she said. “Those people need to step up and do their part. They have a mechanism for protecting themselves. First-responders and front-line health workers need to be protected then those in nursing homes and those with disabilities, hygienic challenges, who can’t take care of themselves.”

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Vaccination plans

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses several weeks apart, and the second dose must be from the same company as the first. Thus, Decatur Morgan Hospital will give the Moderna vaccine to staff members who didn't receive the limited number of Pfizer doses available.

“We have not received all of the supplies that are needed to administer the Moderna vaccine,” hospital spokeswoman Noel Lovelace said Wednesday. “We expect that shipment on Monday. I expect we will have a clinic next week to continue vaccinating employees.”

As of Tuesday, the Huntsville Hospital system had administered 2,336 vaccines to hospital staff.

John Matson, spokesman for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, said nursing home residents in Alabama are expected to start receiving vaccinations for COVID-19 on Monday, but the state nursing home association isn’t sure where the first inoculations will be administered.

“Nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable segment when it comes to the coronavirus. We have no say on who gets it first,” Matson said. “Pharmacies have been in touch with nursing homes. (CVS and Walgreens) will be delivering and administering the vaccines. It comes to the door. That is the most effective and convenient way for all parties. The pharmacies will administer and file the paperwork, so our staffs can continue to provide care to the residents.” He said the Pfizer vaccine will be administered.

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Nursing home deaths

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Alabama nursing homes have recorded 1,401 residents’ deaths that were COVID-19 related from May through Dec. 6. CMS said Tennessee nursing homes have had 1,415 and Mississippi 1,188.

Locally, the seven nursing homes in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties have reported 58 COVID-related deaths since May. NHC in Moulton leads the way with 25 pandemic-related deaths reported since May. NHC corporate officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Brown’s two Morgan County nursing homes reported 19 COVID-related deaths. Falkville’s Summerford Nursing Home Inc. reported three COVID-related deaths, and River City Care and Rehabilitation Center has reported none.

In Limestone County, Athens Senior Rehabilitation and Recovery LLC has reported 11 COVID-related deaths, and Athens Health and Rehab has reported none.

Matson said he doesn't know when all nursing home residents and staff will be administered the vaccine. “We have no speculation on the timeline. Too many things are out of our control,” he said.

Brown and Matson each said taking the vaccine shots will not be made mandatory.

“While we have been encouraging them to take the vaccine, it will remain the residents’ and employees’ choice to take it or not,” Matson said. “We believe the vaccine is effective and safe.”

Brown said about 65% to 70% of his residents said they will take the vaccination, while only about 30% of his staff are willing to take it.

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Occupancy declining

Matson said when the pandemic hit the nation in the spring, Alabama had about 24,000 nursing home residents.

“That number is down because some residents have passed away and some nursing homes aren’t admitting new residents because of COVID,” he said.

All of the area’s nursing home occupancy rates are following that downward trend.

Decatur Health and Rehab Center saw 69 of its 119 beds filled on Dec. 6, according to CMS statistics. In May, 84 of those beds were full.

The Falkville Health Care Center had 83 of its 116 beds full two weeks ago. In May, it had 98 and in October the number had fallen to 77 for a few weeks.

“Without government assistance, it would have been devastating,” Brown said of the falling occupancy rates. He said people are afraid. “The government is trying to educate people about the vaccination. We’re not going to stop this thing until we have 65% or 70% participation by the public.

Summerford had 163 of its 216 beds full in the latest CMS report. In May, Summerford had 190 full beds. River City Care had 144 of its 183 beds full in May compared to 134 now.

Athens Health and Rehab had 117 of its 149 beds full in May. That number is down to 111 full beds, but is up from the 79 occupied beds in October. Athens Senior Rehab and Recovery had 139 of its 170 beds full in May. The latest report has 123 occupied beds.

NHC in Moulton had 108 of its 120 beds full in May compared to 95 now.

Matson said while the number of COVID-19 cases in the nursing home rises, nursing homes mirror what the community rates are. He said once the virus spreads in a particular community, the nursing homes there see an increase in cases a week or two later.”

“We’re not letting down our guard,” he said. “Controlling the community spread of COVID is key to controlling the spread in nursing homes. We stress to everyone to continue to wear masks, social distance and wash your hands. It’s going to be a team effort to defeat this pandemic. It’s a marathon not a sprint.”

According to CMS stats, as of Dec. 6, the seven area nursing homes have had 409 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

CMS reports show 28 nursing home staffers in Alabama, including three in Cullman, have died from COVID-related illnesses. There have been no staff deaths from COVID-19 reported from Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence county nursing homes.

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— Staff writer Cassie Kuhn contributed to this report. mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

(1) comment

Kathy Stults

All these empty beds! My mother needs 24 hour care. A lawyer, DHR, and Decatur Morgan Hospital cannot get a single one to admit her. I understand nursing homes are a business, but there must be concession for necessity. Falkville was ready to accept her. But after 5 days in the hospital, waiting on COVID results, the CEO “changed his mind” 30 minutes before admission. So frustrated with the system!

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