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As COVID-19 outbreaks occur at Guilford nursing homes, vaccine distrust an issue
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As COVID-19 outbreaks occur at Guilford nursing homes, vaccine distrust an issue

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GREENSBORO — The numbers were excellent.

For the month of July, state reports showed no COVID-19 outbreaks at Guilford County nursing and residential-care facilities.

It was a stark change from last winter, when the number of outbreaks at local facilities numbered in the dozens. As defined by the state, outbreaks consist of at least two or more cases, but sometimes cases at individual facilities reached into the hundreds, with dozens of deaths reported.

But July’s remarkable string of zero outbreaks has ended. On Tuesday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported new outbreaks at three local nursing homes. Still, the number of COVID-19 cases were few — a total of eight, with six involving staff members.

Eighty-one percent of nursing home residents nationwide are vaccinated, providing a large measure of protection against the highly contagious disease.

But many of the workers who care for them — about 41% nationwide — remain unvaccinated, and are reluctant to become inoculated.

It’s an issue facilities are struggling with nationwide, with some mandating their workers get vaccinated while others solely encourage it.

Dr. Kevin O’Neil, the chief medical officer for Guilford House, Holden Heights and Wellington Oaks, said he was shocked when an initial survey revealed only 30% of staff was willing to take the vaccine.

“I think one of the major obstacles we had to overcome was people thinking that it was, you know, kind of a new technology that was rushed to production,” he said.

Administrators also had to address skepticism among Black and Hispanic workers.

“We had to address the fact that they were included in these clinical trials and acknowledge that what happened in the past was shameful and won’t happen again,” O’Neil said. “So that really helped tremendously.”

He said about 70% of staff is vaccinated, but he would like to see that number at 90% or more.

Still, O’Neil said that the facilities have stopped short of requiring vaccinations for existing employees, though they are required for all new employees and residents.

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“We are strongly encouraging vaccination and making it clear that a mandate is coming,” O’Neil said. “We wanted our associates to understand that we care about them and want to address their concerns, especially the cultural barriers, and help overcome the myths that are circulating and any other barriers they perceive to vaccination.”

However, once the Food and Drug Administration gives the COVID-19 vaccination full approval, it likely will be mandated for all employees, O’Neil said.

“We do not want to lose any associates, but they must understand that we have a moral obligation to provide for the safety and quality of care or our residents,” he said.

Grant Hollowell, director of operations at Clapp’s Nursing Center in Pleasant Garden, said that despite strong encouragement, some of his staff also is reluctant to take the vaccine.

“We provide them with credible information so that they can make the best decision for themselves,” Hollowell said. He declined to say why the vaccination is not mandated.

Hollowell said news of the so-called breakthrough cases has made some employees reluctant to get a shot. These are a small percentage of cases where vaccinated people still contract the disease, though experts say the symptoms are much milder.

“It’s disheartening,” Hollowell said. “It makes it more difficult to get them to take the vaccine.”

Last week, Guilford County Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann said 98% of new COVID-19 cases are occurring among people who were not vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Hollowell said about 62% of the nursing center’s 120 employees are vaccinated and 90% of the 23 staff members at Clapp’s Assisted Living have been inoculated.

At Abbotswood at Irving Park, Executive Director Allison Pait said employees there will be required to have a COVID-19 vaccination by Sept. 30.

“This is a personal decision, and we understand that,” she said. “But our obligation is to protect our residents and our community.”

Bill Haney, an Abbotswood resident, said he feels comfortable with how the facility has handled the pandemic since its outbreak.

“They were very proactive,” the 81-year-old said.

And he likes the idea of requiring employees to get the vaccine.

“That makes us feel pretty good about the facility,” Haney said.

Contact Kenwyn Caranna at 336-373-7082 and follow @kcaranna on Twitter.

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