As Sholom long-term care staff and residents began receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, the organization’s CEO anticipates the shots will make a drastic difference.

“Congregate living has gone from the most dreaded, unsafe place to work or live,” Sholom CEO Barbara Klick said. “Guess what? We’re the safest. We’re the ones who are getting the vaccines. We’re going to be the safest place to work, and we’re going to be the safest place to live.”

Long-term care residents and staff at Sholom’s St. Paul campus received their first shots of the Moderna vaccine Jan. 3, while the vaccine came to the St. Louis Park Ackerberg Campus Jan. 6.

The months preceding the vaccine delivery proved deadly at Sholom, particularly at the memory care program at the Roitenberg Family Assisted Living Residence in St. Louis Park.

“That was our worst, where we lost seven or eight residents and one employee,” Klick said of the deaths related to COVID-19.

She praised employees for continuing to come to work amid the outbreak.

“They walk through the wall of fear every day and come through our doors to serve the people who need us the most, and even when they knew mortality was kind of right in front of their face,” Klick said. “When one of our own employees, their colleague dies, it brings it home a lot quicker.”

About 15 COVID-related deaths have occurred at both Sholom campuses, Klick said. The organization provides data on current residents and staff with the disease on its website, sholom.com. As of Jan. 7, one resident and two staff members at Sholom Home West had active cases. After a surge of cases after Thanksgiving, Klick said 47 Sholom employees at both campuses could not come to work because they had COVID or had to quarantine due to exposure.

“It was a dark time,” Klick said.

Case numbers dropped later, but she said she worried about another uptick after holiday travel. If it develops, she said she hoped the first shots will help protect residents and staff.

At the first vaccinations for the long-term care facility in St. Paul, 99% of residents and 66% of staff accepted the vaccine. Among staff who declined, Klick said some are pregnant, breastfeeding or have had severe allergic reactions in past situations. Others expressed hesitancy to accept the vaccine due to the speed in which it was produced, despite Sholom’s educational efforts, Klick said.

“There are some people who say, ‘No, not for me,’” Klick said. “We have to respect that for now.”

None of the Sholom staff or residents vaccinated experienced any severe allergic reaction.

If the organization did reach herd immunity through vaccinations, Klick said Sholom would still need to restrict visits but would have more flexibility with dining, games and activities, helping to prevent feelings of isolation.

Even as residents came in for shots in St. Louis Park, Klick said, “We were talking about how happy all the residents were because they got to be together. Since we’ve been trying to keep them separate for so long, they’re like, ‘Oh, isn’t his fun?’ That was a big day.”

Reflecting on the joy residents felt, Klick added, “It was kind of like winning the World Series. ... It’s kind of like the beginning of a new chapter.”

Klick said she had a very mild reaction to the shot, with a sore arm, but she anticipated the second shot a few weeks later could prompt a more noticeable immune response. Some people have experienced headaches, body aches and fatigue.

Of the decision on whether to accept the vaccine, Klick said, “Do you want to feel crappy for a couple of days or do you want get COVID and take your chances? You know, you could be asymptomatic or you could be in the ICU and on a ventilator (with COVID).”

Sholom provided webinars about the vaccine for employees, residents and family members, and provided information online and in letters to help people make an informed decision.

Volunteer Coordinator Lori Rodewald said she felt minor side effects, like tiredness, after receiving the shot but expressed hope that the vaccine eventually could help residents connect with their loved ones.

“Getting the vaccine was an extremely rewarding and exciting experience,” Rodewald said. “COVID had been extremely difficult for our residents and families. Being part of the vaccine and seeing residents getting the vaccine instills hope for all and the future of getting families connected again.”

Sholom will need to continue precautions for the present time since people can still transmit COVID-19 after receiving shots, even if it should protect most people from severe complications, Klick said.

“I told people I can’t wait to have a bonfire for all the PPE, but I said, ‘Get used to it,’” Klick said of the continuing need for personal protective equipment.

Sholom residents and staff are among the early Minnesotans to receive the Moderna vaccine. As of Jan. 7, fewer than 17,000 shots of the Moderna vaccine had been administered, although more than 160,000 vaccine doses had been distributed.

“The above data suggests that Sholom was very fortunate to be in receipt of the Moderna vaccine!” Klick said in an email.

Although the initial vaccines went to long-term care residents, she said dates have been set for vaccinations in all buildings Sholom operates.

After about 10 months or so of dealing with the pandemic, Klick said she woke up after her shot feeling happy.

She said, “I forgot what that felt like.”

Of the impact on long-term care facilities, Klick said, “As these vaccines roll out, the numbers are going to drop, and we’re going to be on top of the world.”

To people with concerns about the vaccine, she said, “I’m a senior citizen, and I’m a nurse. I took the vaccine; I follow the science. ... I hope people will follow suit. It is the only way out of this.”

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