Employees at ravaged Delaware nursing homes start COVID-19 vaccinations

Residents of Delaware nursing homes have accounted for more than half of coronavirus-related deaths, but fewer than 1 in 25 cases.

At right, Dr. Karyl Rattay, Delaware's public health director, checks out the arrival of COVID-19 vaccination doses on Wednesday. (State of Delaware)

At right, Dr. Karyl Rattay, Delaware's public health director, checks out the arrival of COVID-19 vaccination doses on Wednesday. (State of Delaware)

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The most crushing toll of the coronavirus pandemic in America has been on those who live in nursing homes, and the situation is no different in Delaware.

COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of 455 nursing home residents, accounting for 55% of the coronavirus-related deaths in Delaware, state public health records show. Yet residents of those long-term care facilities account for less than 4% of the state’s total case count of nearly 49,000.

So that’s why Delaware’s COVID-19 vaccination program has targeted first staff, and then residents, of nursing homes as part of the first wave of vaccinations.

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The initial shots to nursing home staff members began Thursday — one day after 88 employees at Bayhealth Hospital in Dover received injections from the first batch sent to Delaware.

The first doses for nursing homes went to three downstate facilities owned by Genesis HealthCare — in Dover, Milford and Seaford. The Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based company has five facilities in Delaware and has seen 62 patients with COVID die.

Nursing supervisor Kolubah Goniah was happy to get the first of two shots at his facility in Dover.

“At first I had some worries, but my company had information sessions, had Zoom conferences’’ where his questions were answered, Goniah told WHYY News after getting vaccinated. “From there it was easy to make an informed decision.”

Goniah is not worried about potential side effects, which include soreness at the injection site, fever, headaches, and body aches that usually go away within 24 hours, public health officials said.

He’s not concerned about getting a minor reaction because he contracted the coronavirus in May.

“You’d rather want to get a vaccine than COVID,’’ he said. “I was really sick. That was a scary moment in my life.”

Nursing home residents themselves will begin getting their shots a few days after Christmas.

Dr. Richard Feifer, chief medical officer at Genesis, called vaccination “the critical third leg of the stool — along with personal protective equipment and testing — in stemming the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and protecting residents and health care workers.”

Gov. John Carney said the shots are needed to “protect Delaware’s most vulnerable citizens from COVID-19,” but once again urged residents statewide to hunker down for a difficult few months ahead.

Cases have risen dramatically and hospitalizations and deaths have steadily climbed in recent weeks.

Thursday, the state reported its highest seven-day daily average of new cases at 827. A record 407 people are currently hospitalized in Delaware hospitals, a count that is rapidly rising.

“We’re not through the woods yet,’’ the governor stressed. “We still face a difficult winter surge of cases and hospitalizations. Stay vigilant until we can widely distribute the vaccine. Wear a mask. Don’t gather with friends or family outside your household. We’ll get through this.

“We may have to continue to social distance and take other measures to keep our mothers, fathers and grandparents safe, but thanks to arrival of this vaccine, we can be assured that they will be better-protected from the virus at a time when it is spiking in our communities.”

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