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San Diego County firefighters administer vaccines at nursing homes

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Firefighters across San Diego County have vaccinated more than 2,500 residents at long-term-care facilities since early January, responding to an urgent need to protect a vulnerable population against COVID-19.

As of Thursday, personnel from more than 20 fire departments had visited 113 long-term-care facilities. Dubbed Operation Collaboration, the effort began Jan. 7 as a way to reach residents at the facilities, many of whom are homebound or don’t drive. Some are not tech savvy and may find it difficult to go online and set up an appointment at a vaccination site.

Residents at long-term-care facilities, which have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

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“We’re hoping to mitigate that,” said Capt. Thomas Shoots of Cal Fire San Diego, which is leading the vaccination effort in partnership with San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency and the San Diego County Fire Protection District.

Firefighters have visited facilities of all sizes.

“We’re hitting them all — big and small,” Shoots said.

On Jan 11, firefighters administered 160 vaccines at Community Care Center in La Mesa. On Wednesday, just a couple of residents at Garden Adobe in Rancho Santa Fe were vaccinated.

“They need vaccines, and nobody else was going to make that happen for them,” Shoots said of the two residents.

Operation Collaboration targets facilities, and homebound individuals, that don’t otherwise have access to vaccines in-house.

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The effect of the coronavirus on skilled nursing, assisted living, memory care and other long-term-care facilities has been significant. The facilities house people who, because of their age and higher rates of certain health conditions, are at a greater risk of having severe cases of COVID-19.

Deaths from COVID-19 at skilled nursing facilities alone account for 15.5% of all coronavirus-related deaths in the region, according to San Diego County health officials. Throughout the state, deaths at long-term-care facilities account for 31% of all coronavirus-related deaths, according to data from the California public health and social services departments.

Some facilities have partnered with CVS Health and Walgreens Pharmacy through a coordinated effort with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that distributes vaccine doses directly to the pharmacies.

CVS and Walgreens work with individual skilled nursing and assisted living administrators to schedule three in-house clinics per facility, but the vaccination rollout has not been as smooth or quick as some administrators would prefer.

Linda Cioffi, the administrator and owner of the Alpine View Lodge memory care facility in eastern San Diego County, said she was frustrated at the beginning of January while trying to find out when her vaccination clinic through CVS would be scheduled.

After weeks of daily, yet fruitless, calls and emails to CVS, she was contacted by the county to schedule the first round of shots administered by Cal Fire San Diego to her residents and staff. Within days, 22 out of her 26 residents and all 22 staff had received the Moderna vaccine.

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Alpine View residents and staff will receive their second shots next week. Cioffi said she was thankful to finally have all of her staff and the majority of her residents protected.

“It’s a vaccine, so does it make you bulletproof? No, but now you know you have a dog in the fight,” she said. “I feel a lot more confident for my elders’ futures and for the staff that are serving them. There’s not that sense of impending doom.”

For Leslie Bojorquez, director of operations at Home Instead in La Mesa, Calif., trying to get her residents and staff vaccinated before she connected with Cal Fire was especially difficult.

Home Instead employs about 80 caregivers, who provide in-home care to around 70 clients at their private residences. Since they are not all housed under one roof — and since some clients are confined to their homes — figuring out the logistics of vaccinating all staff and clients meant trying to schedule individual appointments at the county’s vaccination super sites through the already impacted scheduling website.

“It was such a huge challenge — it was like finding a unicorn to get those appointments,” Bojorquez said.

When she heard of Operation Collaboration, Bojorquez made some calls and was able to schedule a weekend vaccination clinic through Cal Fire. Some clients were to be brought in by their Home Instead caregivers or family members, and at least one was to receive medical transport to receive their vaccination.

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Bojorquez said her staff and clients are ecstatic to finally have a vaccination date.

“Still, we’ll have to wear all the masks and proper protection after the vaccines are given, but it’s just an added layer of relief for our families, especially,” Bojorquez said.

Operation Collaboration began as a way to vaccinate paramedics and emergency medical technicians — most of whom work as firefighters. They’re on the front lines, responding to medical calls and going “in and out of homes all the time,” so the vaccines are important to protect not only them but also the communities they serve, Shoots said.

Personnel started to administer vaccines in rural communities this weekend, starting with Borrego Springs, Calif. They will target residents who are 65 years and older, including those who live in private residences since they are generally far from vaccination sites.

Hernandez and Mapp write for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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