Taking COVID vaccines on the road

DEB WESLEY, CEO of Addison County Home Health & Hospice, dispenses a COVID-19 injection to Middlebury resident Pat Durfee last week. ACHH&H is in its third week of vaccinating homebound seniors, most of whom see the COVID shot as a passport to reconnecting with family members they haven’t seen during the year- long pandemic.

It’s mind-blowing when you walk into their home and realize that your nurses… are the only contact these people have had in a year.

— Deb Wesley, ACHH&H

NEW HAVEN — It’s early Thursday morning, and the spacious Addison County Home Health & Hospice (ACHH&H) headquarters off Route 7 in New Haven is almost empty. The vast majority of the agency’s 60 clinical staff has already been dispatched to all corners of the county, caring for patients too sick or frail to travel during this, the winter of COVID-19.
But two ACHH&H officials remain inside the building, their eyes darting tensely between a clock and a window view of the parking lot outside. They’re waiting for the delivery truck that will signal the start of what will be a 15-hour day, during which they’ll log hundreds of miles delivering health, hope and a tangible sign of a return to normalcy for dozens of Addison County residents who’ve been living on Meals on Wheels, phone calls and prayers for the past year.
The precious cargo is the COVID-19 vaccine, and it’s being entrusted to ACHH&H Executive Director Deb Wesley and Maureen Conrad, the agency’s director of development. Wesley refers to her 102-person workforce as a team, and she and Conrad are certainly “taking one for the team” during this COVID-19 pandemic. Wesley gladly volunteered to become the vaccinator in chief, a designation that requires training, travel and oversight over a concoction that’s of incalculable value to those yearning to turn the page on COVID.
“Our (staff) has done amazing and incredible things; they have stood up on the front lines of this (pandemic) and delivered care,” Wesley said.
“They’ve gone above and beyond,” she continued. “I can’t ask this team to take on one more adventure, so this has become ‘our’ adventure,” she added, glancing at Conrad.
Wesley and Conrad on Feb. 25 began their third week of collecting and dispensing COVID-19 vaccines to homebound patients throughout the county. It’s been an odyssey fraught with potential pitfalls ranging from wind-swept snowdrifts, to an unforgiving clock.
The agency is using the Pfizer version of the COVID-19 vaccine. It must be kept at temperatures ranging from 2-8 degrees Celsius. It comes in vials, each containing around five doses.
“Once we crack that vial, we must use that vaccine within six hours,” Wesley said. “Any unopened vials can stay in our fridge for up to five days. We have five days to administer all of that vaccine.”
Hence the “Mission Impossible” imagery of a lit fuse when the vaccine delivery van pulls into the Home Health & Hospice lot.

As soon as the van arrives, ACHH&H officials load the vaccine doses into a cooler. The doses are counted, and Wesley immediately does the math on how many area residents will be able to get a shot based on its limited shelf life, geography and eligible patients.
ACHH&H must abide by vaccine restrictions imposed by the Department of Health and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott. The first installment went to Home Health patients age 75 and older. Last week, it was for the 70-plus population. Starting Monday, March 1, Vermonters 65 and older were eligible. The ACHH&H patients in question must be unable to safely get to a pharmacy or a vaccination clinic.
Wesley and Conrad logged hundreds of miles during the first two weeks of “operation COVID-19 vaccine,” visiting patients in Vergennes, New Haven, Orwell, Bristol, Starksboro, Leicester, Salisbury, Lincoln, Ripton and a bunch of other communities.
“We’ve hiked through snow banks, up icy ramps, through slippery driveways — a typical home health day during the winter,” Wesley quipped.
Each visit lasts 15-20 minutes and includes some encouraging words and an overview of the symptoms the patient might experience after getting the shot.
It’s a pain to receive a shot under normal circumstances. But when it comes to a COVID shot, it’s like winning the lottery for some recipients.
“There’s a lot of isolation, and people are lonely,” Conrad explained. “We’ve heard numerous times, when we’ve been out, things like, ‘My daughter will be so happy that I’m getting this vaccine. She calls me every day to see when it’s coming.’”
The patients are also appreciative of the temporary companionship.
“We’ve seen a 106-year-old, a 103-year-old, individuals who have not physically seen their families in more than a year,” Wesley said. “It’s mind-blowing when you walk into their home and realize that your nurses… are the only contact these people have had in a year.”
A lot of the visits, she added, are marked by “socially distanced hugs, tears and gratitude.”
Conrad and Wesley give kudos to members of Middlebury Regional EMS, who have agreed to wait on standby near the homes of any vaccination subjects judged to be especially vulnerable to side effects.
Before saying farewell, Wesley and Conrad schedule the patient for a second vaccination.
Wesley estimates she’d administered shots to around 130 patients during the first two weeks of “operation COVID-19 vaccine.”
ACHH&H is currently caring for around 475 patients in the county, according to Wesley. The agency’s service list includes clients of such nonprofits as Project Independence and AgeWell.
Other ACHH&H staff will be enlisted for the COVID-19 vaccination trips during the coming weeks, according to Wesley.
“The first two weeks, we needed to understand the process and see how efficient we could make it with these timelines,” she said. “After the third week, we’ll have gotten the process down pat and will be able to add team members to do this.”
Conrad is pleased with the approach of daylight savings time on March 14, as it will increase the amount of daylight for the ACHH&H vaccination road trips. Even with GPS, it can be a challenge finding homes in the most rural, backwoods areas.
 “We’re honored to be part of this,” Wesley said. “The pandemic has been a challenge… and Addison County is very important to us.”
Middlebury residents Bill and Pat Durfee were among those who recently got a COVID-19 vaccination from Wesley.
“Having the vaccine come to us was a godsend,” Pat said. “We can’t say enough about how Home Health has always been thinking of us.”
Like many couples, the Durfees were alone on Thanksgiving and Christmas during the pandemic. They are occasionally able to see their daughter and grandchildren during masked, socially distanced gatherings outside.
Bill and Pat were both scheduled to get their second COVID vaccine on Wednesday.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pat said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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