Homebound N.J. residents struggle to access COVID vaccines. ‘It’s a great anxiety.’ | #hospice | #elderly | #seniors
Three years ago, Sheran Feif’s husband Denny was diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that progressively weakens the muscles. Standing and walking are impossible for him and he can barely speak, Feif says.
And now, the couple is facing a new challenge: getting the COVID-19 shots for Denny. They don’t own a wheelchair van to transport the 81-year-old to a pharmacy or mega-site, and are instead looking for a nurse to deliver the vaccine to their home at Shadow Light Village in Red Bank, Feif said.
Multiple therapists who are employed by a hospice program they hired enter their house each week to help Denny with his condition, and Feif said she fears the virus could be brought in. He previously contracted COVID-19 in November, spent 10 days hospitalized and is still recovering four months later, Feif said.
“It was a devastating, horrible experience…. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. My husband is very anxious about it. He’s really terrified of getting it again,” Feif said. “It’s a great anxiety.”
Feif’s husband is part of the home-bound population in New Jersey who cannot drive or get into a car to be taken to a vaccine appointment. The vaccine needs to be brought to them.
The state has identified at least 11,000 home-bound individuals across New Jersey with help from the Department of Human Services and is working with home health agencies, community health centers and visiting nurse associations to go into homes.
Donna Leusner, DOH spokeswoman, said there are at least 20 county health departments and 33 local health departments that have plans to vaccinate homebound individuals by partnering with health systems, churches, Meals on Wheels programs, the Visiting Nurse Association and other groups.
“Some of them have already done pilots going into the home to vaccinate the homebound both with either Moderna or J&J,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
The DOH has also purchased three customized mobile units to go into underserved communities, such as residential high-rise buildings for seniors, Leusner said. The units are in the process of being registered and licensed.
The state health department said last month bringing Pfizer vaccines to this vulnerable population is challenging because the vials must be stored below a certain temperature. However, officials said increased supplies of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which doesn’t have temperature requirements and is only one dose, is making immunizing the home-bound population easier.
The FDA authorized the J&J vaccine for emergency use in the U.S. at the end of February, and 145,700 doses are available for New Jersey officials to order as of Monday, according to CDC data. Now that the J&J vaccine is becoming more readily available, some towns, non-profit health organizations and hospices are taking the lead.
The Visiting Nurse Association of New Jersey launched a small pilot program to vaccinate its home-bound patients in Monmouth County, and vaccinated about 105 people so far, said the non-profit’s spokeswoman Jenna Vaccaro, Director of Strategic Initiatives for VNA Health Group. The VNA Health Group has about 400 chronically homebound patients in Monmouth County on its current census, she said.
Vaccaro said the organization plans to eventually expand the program across New Jersey and to those who are not under VNA’s care.
Connie Wasmer, 86, of Paramus, secured a shot for her home-bound spouse Jack Wasmer through Valley Health Group’s hospice agency in North Jersey, which has been caring for her husband who has late-stage Alzheimers. The 87-year-old has been laying in a hospital bed in their living room since last year, unable to move, she said.
After two frustrating months trying to make an appointment, a Valley Hospice nurse who cares for Jack called Connie to say she had about 10 J&J doses for her patients, one of which she could deliver to him.
“Even though I was so upset and so concerned for two months… thank god he got it,” Connie Wasmer said. “I’m really relieved.”
Some towns are creating lists of home-bound residents to call when doses become available and a medical professional can go to their residence.
In Newark, the health department and housing authority have a program to vaccinate seniors directly in their apartments. About 90 people had signed up when the program was first announced in January.
And in Union County, the county has a list of about 2,200 home bound people and people with disabilities from both a state registry and the meals on wheels program, said spokesman Sebastian D’Elia. No program is in place to vaccinate those residents yet, but he said once more J&J doses are provided to the county, a mobile unit will go to homes.
Lydia Whitefield, of Cranford, is trying to help get her home-bound neighbor who is in his 80s and lives with his wife immunized.
She said she gave her contact information to the Union Country Aging Department, which is collecting names of home-bound people who aren’t on the state’s registry or signed up for meals on wheels.
“He’s totally home-bound. He can’t get out of the house. He can’t get into a car,” Whitefield said. “People are coming into their home and helping them with their daily activities and people who come into their home are doing everything they can to protect, but my fear is they could be exposed. If they’re exposed, it would be very difficult for them.”
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