Kathleen O’Connor

It was around the time that Pfizer submitted its first vaccine trial information to federal officials that Mary Saleh, LSW, administrator of Alden Lincoln Park in Chicago, started talking with her staff about the vaccine. From those initial conversations, Mary took notice that post-acute care facility’s staff were very excited about the coming vaccine, while others were clearly anxious or uncertain about the vaccine. 

Prior to the vaccine becoming available, staff at Alden Lincoln Park in Chicago were asked to indicate whether they planned to accept or decline the vaccine. If declining, the employees were asked to provide the reason. Mary and her team set out to have individual, face-to-face discussions with the employees to provide education, dispel myths and to simply offer a listening ear.

The reasons given for vaccine hesitancy varied greatly,  from being concerned that there could be different vaccines for black and brown people than the ones given to white people, to concerns the vaccine could cause infertility, as well as concerns about having to pay out-of-pocket for the vaccine. The majority of staff members were concerned the vaccine was too new, there was not enough research, and some unknown long-term effects may arise.

A new perspective emerged when a resident’s daughter at Alden Lincoln Park in Chicago shared her experience working as a scientist on mRNA vaccine research in the 1980s. She subsequently provided information on how the vaccine works and the decades of research that had preceded the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, which the organization incorporated into its vaccine educational materials.

Leading by example

Mary was offered the opportunity to be vaccinated approximately two weeks prior to Alden Lincoln Park’s first on-site vaccination clinic. She received her first vaccine dose and widely shared the story about her experience with her staff. This strong leadership move set a positive tone at the beginning of the Alden Lincoln Park vaccination journey.

One by one, after having their individual concerns addressed in conversation and also after witnessing their colleagues receive the vaccine without adverse effects, additional staff signed up to receive the vaccination. From the beginning of January through the middle of March, Alden Lincoln Park offered three on-site clinics in which 85% of the staff were vaccinated.

According to CMS data, as of Oct. 3, 2021, the national percent of vaccinated staff per long-term organization facility is 69.2%, which is fairly consistent with the Illinois rate of 69.78%. In a continual display of demonstrated leadership strength, Mary set her sights on a 100% goal. She aggressively pursued full staff vaccine compliance, given the devastating impact of the virus on residents, staff, families and the community.

The last 15% of staff was hard to convince.

In Mary’s words, “It was an everyday effort by many people and a non-stop effort for months.”

Pressure builds

Frontline staff who were advocates for the vaccine discussed its benefits in peer-to-peer conversations, which ended up being very effective. If staff would tell Mary, “I already missed all the clinics,” or “I don’t know where to go for one now,” Mary would take out her phone and make an appointment for the employee at a nearby CVS or Walgreens at a time and location convenient for the employee.

She would consistently follow-up to ensure the employee kept the appointment and checked how they were feeling after being vaccinated. Eventually, it came down to one employee who had not been vaccinated.

When President Joe Biden announced that vaccination would be mandatory for healthcare workers, including those in long-term care, Mary approached the employee asking if she had heard that news. The employee asked, “What does that mean for me?” Mary informed her that when the vaccine mandate went into effect, she would no longer be able to work there. The employee said, “OK, sign me up.” 

Alden Lincoln Park in Chicago is a very special place. The average length of employment among current staff is eight years, which well exceeds industry averages. Mary has worked at Alden Lincoln Park for eight years and, over that time, has built trusting relationships with her staff. The organizational culture is a family atmosphere, so the staff were already accustomed to working together on collaborative goals. The longevity of Mary’s leadership tenure was certainly a contributing factor in being able to hold convincing, one-on-one vaccine conversations with her staff. 

The greatest legacy of the successful outcome in achieving a 100% staff vaccination rate certainly is and will continue to be the tremendous comfort that this news brings to residents, families and staff. They know the level of commitment that the Alden Lincoln Park team put forth to accomplish this milestone. They also know this team worked together to do everything within their power to limit the risk of COVID-19 in their community.

Kathleen O’Connor is president and founder of Achieve Accreditation, which works with Alden Lincoln Park. 

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.