'We're Still Not Done': Vaccine Brings Cautious Return To Normality In Nursing Homes

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At lunchtime on Sunday, dozens of workers filled up a room at the SALMON Health and Retirement home in Westborough, waiting their turn for the highly-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine.

Standing at the side of the room with a surgical mask on his face, company executive Shawn Neville demonstrated how distributing the vaccine worked: recipients followed a counter-clockwise loop around the room, starting with check-ins.

"There's an area where there's a registration... an area for education, so return-to-work criteria, any side effects... then there's the 'shooter station' or the vaccination station, behind the curtains over there," he said, pointing.

A poster at SALMON Health and Retirement in Westborough encourages residents to take the COVID-19 vaccine. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
A poster at SALMON Health and Retirement in Westborough encourages residents to take the COVID-19 vaccine. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

Behind the curtains, several CVS technicians in face shields administered the vaccine — upwards of 360 shots in all. Finally, after getting the shot in the arm, patients sat for 15 minutes in a safely-distanced waiting area, so nurses could monitor them for any negative reactions.

First to get the shot was nursing assistant Julio Bercian, a native of Guatemala who's worked at this nursing home for more than three decades.

"Oh, I'm fine, thank you. I'm feeling fine. No reaction," he said about the shot.

Bercian said he was nervous to get a vaccine that was developed so quickly, afraid it could bring long-term side effects. But what swayed him was his trust in doctors he's heard from — and their consensus that getting vaccinated was the right thing to do.

For many residents at nursing homes in the state, and the people who care for them, the arrival of the vaccine brings a sigh of relief. Nicole Murphy, head of nursing at the facility, said 95% of the residents, and 80% of the staff, volunteered to get the vaccine.

"Most of the residents are hopeful that after they receive the two vaccines, some things will open up, like they can come back to the dining rooms, their family can come into the building again, they can see their spouse in person and hold their hand for the first time in almost a year," Murphy said.

Despite the cause for optimism signaled by this first round of vaccinations, Murphy isn't entirely at ease. Vaccination for COVID-19 requires two shots, taken about three to four weeks apart, and it's still unclear when exactly residents will be able to return to their normal activities.

"I don't know that that will be in February, but hopefully sooner than later,” she said.

Still, when asked if it's time to break out the champagne bottles, Murphy nodded.

"I think it is [time]," she said. "But there needs to be a second bottle to be cracked when it's all done.  It's definitely a very it's a very happy day for us. There's definitely a lot of relief for us. But we're still not done."

This segment aired on December 29, 2020.

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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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