WEST HARTFORD — Less than a year after the state’s first nursing home was hit with the deadly COVID-19 virus, staff and residents at The Reservoir on Friday became among the first in the state to receive vaccines.
Sophia Walker, a nurse at the long-term care facility, said she was happy to receive the vaccine. She said as a Black woman she hopes her example will encourage others in her community to receive a shot when their turn comes.
“As a nurse, I felt this was the best thing to do to show patients,” Walker said. “Everyone wants to get back to the lives we had before. I’m happy to be an example.”
Connecticut was among four states picked by the federal government to start vaccinations at nursing homes ahead of the national roll out on Monday.
It was welcome news for the state’s long-term care facilities, which have been hit hard across the country. In Connecticut, the long-term care facilities have suffered more than 3,000 deaths — more than half the overall 5,500 deaths in the state.
The first virus-associated death reported in Connecticut was a resident at an assisted living facility in Ridgefield. Connecticut hospitals received their first shipments earlier this week and began inoculations immediately after.
Dr. Richard Feifer, chief medical officer for the nursing home owned by Genesis HealthCare, was first to receive a vaccine on Friday. “These vials of hope have arrived,” he said in remarks before receiving his shot.
“Today is a historic day and this vaccine is critical to our ability to end this pandemic. We are leading the way and very excited to do this,” Feifer said.
Gov. Ned Lamont said arrival of the vaccine is a watershed moment.
“Eight or nine months ago, 70 percent of our fatalities were related to nursing homes,” he said. “Now it’s lower. This is no victory lap, but we have done everything we could to make it better. We provided extra resources for our nursing homes.”
Those also receiving shots included nursing home resident Jean Peters, Frank Tirado, a housekeeper, and Zack Mondayko, a therapy department worker.
Walker said it’s been difficult for workers and the families of nursing home residents, who have dealt with visitation restrictions and bans.
“We care for our residents,” Walker said. “As a nurse, I understand how they feel and that they can’t see their families. We are there to support them and take care of them.”
Officials said visitation restrictions will continue and pointed out that masks and social distancing will still be required until a significant portion of the state’s population is vaccinated.
“Limiting visitation and wearing face masks will need to continue tomorrow and the next day until we have very large amounts of people vaccinated,” Feifer noted. “We will get there.”
The West Hartford facility has reported about a half-dozen deaths linked to the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to data provided by the state. Last week’s numbers showed no new cases of the virus among the facility's 38 residents.
For much of the year, deaths of residents at nursing homes and assisted living facilities comprised roughly 70 percent or more of the total deaths reported statewide. On a nationwide scale, deaths in long-term care facilities accounted for just under 40 percent of the total deaths.
“This is a remarkable and joyful day in Connecticut,” said Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner for the state Department of Public Health.
“Over the past nine months, our nursing home staff and residents have been devastated by this virus,” Gifford said.
“We have lost over 3,000 residents. This virus has taken a toll on families unable to visit loved ones and workers whose jobs were difficult and challenging even before the pandemic began,” Gifford added.
Matt Barrett, president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, lauded those who are among the first to be vaccinated.
“We are offering our highest praise for the nursing home residents and staff stepping forward today to be among the first vaccinated from Connecticut’s long-term care community,” Barrett said. “The vaccine is a beacon of light pointing to the other side of this epic public health emergency, and the individuals who will be vaccinated today deserve our appreciation for the example they are setting.”
The inoculations come after Lamont announced Thursday the state will receive about 12,000 fewer doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine than originally anticipated.
The problem, which is affecting other states as well, will mean Connecticut will receive about 86,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine after expecting 98,000. Connecticut received its expected amount this week, but the shortfall will begin affecting shipments next week.
The shortage will be partially offset by some vials containing more than the expected five doses.
Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said the shortage could push vaccination timelines back “a week or so,” but said there are still too many variables to know for sure — including how many health care workers and nursing home residents and staff elect to take the vaccine in the first phase.
Health care workers across Connecticut hospitals this week started receiving their first injections of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
A New York nurse who works in an intensive care unit was the first person in the country to get a dose of the vaccine on Monday, just days after the FDA gave the shot the green light for emergency use.
There were no delays in receiving vaccine dose deliveries, Lamont said this week, despite a strong nor’easter that pounded the state Wednesday into Thursday. Lamont said the state had already received all its shipments from Pfizer ahead of the storm.