The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations in long-term care is expected to speed up significantly in the coming weeks, say federal officials and vaccination providers. Hesitancy will be the biggest issue administrators face as the program moves forward, according to an industry advocate.

CVS Health and Walgreens plan to complete the first round of shots in their contracted nursing homes by Jan. 25, according to Reuters. The two retail giants so far have delivered vaccinations in approximately 9,000 onsite long-term care clinics and have about 4,000 more scheduled, General Gustave F. Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, said in a Wednesday press briefing.

The early days of the long-term care vaccination program were devoted not only to distribution and scheduling, but to the details of the consent process with residents and their guardians, said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the briefing. Now the program is entering a new phase, he added.

“I do believe that we will be seeing a significant ramp-up of those vaccines getting into nursing home patients,” Azar said. “[W]e are working to organize a discussion with the leadership of CVS and Walgreens with our nation’s governors to make sure that there is a lot of clarity about the process there and to ensure that there is full state support on getting our nursing home [residents and] staff vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

As of Jan. 6, there were more than 3.4 million doses available for long-term care use and more than 511,00 had been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AHCA/NCAL: Education needed to promote vaccine uptake

Facilities now should turn their focus to the issue of vaccine hesitancy, according to the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living. 

“Uptake among residents and staff is varying widely,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO. “But in general, staff seem to be mirroring the general public’s reaction: excitement mixed with hesitation about the vaccines’ development and safety.”

Most nursing home residents but many fewer staff members have consented to receiving shots, according to anecdotal reports by LeadingAge. In Ohio, for example, more than half of nursing home workers have declined the vaccine, said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday. And a recent Indiana study found that concern about side effects was the primary reason staff members demurred on vaccination, with many saying they would be more likely to consent at a later date.

To promote greater uptake, AHCA / NCAL is calling on public health officials, social media companies, and the media to combat vaccine misinformation and help encourage families and staff members to consent to getting the shots. A need exists for “credible information” to help inform their decisions, Parkinson said. The organization has kicked off a branded vaccine education campaign to help in that effort, including a new toolkit.