Healthcare worker readying a vaccine for an older woman

When the federal government expanded the COVID-19 vaccination rollout last week, affordable senior housing providers met the news with excitement and a little bit of concern.

“We’re not a healthcare provider; we have no nurses on staff. We had to step up to the plate,” said Karina Barragan, director of social services programs and 504 coordinator for TELACU, a Los Angeles-based community development corporation. 

Barragan was part of a LeadingAge vaccine panel on Tuesday discussing the vaccine clinic rollout in HUD Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program communities through the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care.

Peter Desjardins, senior vice president of real estate operations for Volunteers of America, echoed Barragan’s comments, saying that it is important for affordable senior housing providers to make it clear during that first contact with a pharmacy that they are an independent Section 202 housing provider.

“Their default position seems to be expecting a nursing home; they’re expecting medical staff to be on hand,” Desjardins said. “Be clear that’s not what you are. You’re willing to help, but there are certain lines you can’t cross because you are not a nursing home.”

Panelists provided optimistic outlooks for federal vaccine clinics moving through senior living and other long-term care settings but acknowledged challenges with scheduling and communication in affordable senior housing settings.

“Scheduling has been hectic,” Barragan said, adding that providers are participating in a “unique experience” of uploading information to pharmacies for residents. She said the clinics themselves are time-consuming due to the preparation and organization that goes into them before the actual clinic date.

Nancy Evans, CEO of CSI Support and Development, which has 59 affording senior housing communities in four states, said organization is key because the time from scheduling a clinic to the actual clinic happens “in the blink of an eye.”

The greatest challenge that CSI communities have faced, she said, are differences in individual clinics.

“The biggest problem is, pharmacies have different ways of doing it, and it’s dependent on the pharmacy,” Evans said. “There is that learning curve. How you did it yesterday might not be how you do it today.”

Desjardins agreed, saying the changes from clinic to clinic are “not drastic or dramatic, but there is some nuance to who’s coming, what they want to do and how they want to handle it.”

“What you really need to do is be extremely organized, play everything you can out ahead of time, be prepared and be flexible, because it can all change on a dime,” Evans said.

Toby Halliday, director of asset management and portfolio oversight with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that HUD’s Office of Multifamily Housing Programs supports 1.2 million households around the country, including Section 202 residents.

Although HUD is not a healthcare agency and has avoided giving guidance or direction on vaccination, he said, the department supports efforts to host onsite vaccination clinics. The agency encourages its partners to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and work with local and state health agencies, Halliday added.

“Be very careful about respecting the privacy of residents, respecting the rights of residents,” he said. “Make sure you’re walking the appropriate path with regard to consent in asking folks for private healthcare information.”

Ruth Link-Gelles, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as vaccine supply increases, the Federal Retail Pharmacy Partnership Strategy for COVID-19 Vaccination will begin rolling out more widely available clinics in local and community pharmacies.

Link-Gelles said it is more efficient to do mass vaccination clinics than go into communities to vaccinate individuals who are homebound or bedbound. Having multiple, lengthy discussions with daily members about consent, scheduling clinics and going room-to-room is less efficient than holding onsite clinics, she added. Link-Gelles encouraged anyone who can go out into the greater community to do so since onsite clinics are meant for those individuals who can’t go off site for vaccination.