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Groton nursing home starts to turn corner of COVID-19 with first dose of vaccine

Groton — The needle pinched a little, just like with any other vaccine, but felt momentous, too, for those who rolled up their sleeves Thursday morning at the Fairview Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing facility.

"I think it's a huge milestone for our industry," rehabilitation director Jocelynn Jackson said after she was injected with the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. "I can't wait for the day we start to turn a corner. I'm glad I'm able to be part of the process."

The 120-bed nursing home and rehab center along the Thames River has struggled with the coronavirus, and like many facilities that care for the sick and elderly, has suffered heartbreaking losses of life. Seven resident deaths have been reported.

The air of relief and excitement was palpable as CVS Pharmacy arrived with the first dose of the vaccine, which was expected to be administered throughout the day to 95 residents and 155 staff. They'll receive their second dose on Jan. 28.

Billy Nelson, the facility's executive director, described the scene within the auditorium as "controlled chaos." He said the vaccine, which must be stored at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit, was frozen upon arrival, and that the inoculations were running an hour behind schedule.

Nobody seemed to mind.

The health care industry has struggled to convince an estimated one third of its workforce to take the vaccine, but at Fairview, Nelson said 80% of the staff and 95% of the residents have signed on.

The facility spent the last month ramping up its vaccine education campaign, with the facility's medical director and others hosting six town hall meetings with employees and family members via Zoom.

"This was an opportunity for people to ask questions and get knowledgeable answers," Nelson said. "We vetted a lot of educational resources and material, and we put these on our website so we could direct family members and staff to reliable and valid scientific information."

He said medical professionals were able to dispel some of the common myths and concerns about the vaccine, such as whether recipients would get sick with the virus or whether it causes infertility.

Fairview offered an incentive, or "token of appreciation," of eight hours of paid time off or $100 cash to employees upon completion of the second dose, Nelson said. The staff who spoke with The Day outside the auditorium Thursday said they would have taken the shot anyway.

"You have some doubts because of what you hear, or see on social media," said Luis Ramos, a 44-year-old maintenance technician who lives in Waterford. "Fairview has done a great job of educating us on the vaccine. We have to take care of ourselves so we can take care of the people we need to take care of." He said he plans to donate his $100 incentive back to the facility.

Laurie McConnell, a licensed practical nurse, said she never hesitated. "I got this vaccine today for the doctors and nurses (worldwide) we have lost and to protect the (Fairview) residents and families," she said.

Deb Gates, a 55-year-old licensed practical nurse from Groton, said she had worked with COVID-19 patients during last fall's outbreak and was grateful to be receiving the shot. "We did what we had to," she said. "People are dedicated here. We did lose some people. It was hard because they're like family."

Madison Nelli, a 22-year-old certified nursing assistant and receptionist from Norwich, said she was hesitant at first, but was "all for it" when it came time to get her shot. "We had the open Zoom meetings, and there was no judgment about it, no pressure of saying you had to or didn't have to," she said. "The incentive wasn't what changed my mind, but I'm grateful for it."

According to Nelson, residents of Fairview are free of COVID-19.

"However, we've had staff continue to test positive on occasion," he said. "It's expected and consistent with the positivity rates within the state of Connecticut, but this vaccine is going to help mitigate that risk and further protect us."

k.florin@theday.com

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