They care for the elderly, oftentimes in their own homes. They even help clients inside senior living facilities.
However, home health care workers are struggling to get COVID-19 vaccines, despite vaccine distribution in Texas and much of the country focusing on frontline health care workers first.
A local company is now speaking out about how this sector of the industry has unfortunately slipped into a blind spot in the vaccine rollout.
“We have health care workers who really have been 'the forgotten front line.' They are taking people home from the hospital, from the emergency department, and going into their homes where the patient might have COVID-19, the family might have COVID-19. And I think it’s just a group that are forgotten in this process,” said Dr. Anna Loengard, Chief Medical Officer of Dallas-based AccentCare.
She oversees around 30,000 in-home and hospice health care workers across Texas and the country. Her workers have cared for thousands of COVID-19 patients since last March but yet, she’s struggling to directly secure vaccines for them.
Want to Get on a Vaccine Waitlist?
As the state begins to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines for those in Phase 1A and 1B, county health departments have begun waitlists for those wish to be inoculated.
You can now register to recieve the vaccination in Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties. Links are below:
You do not need to be a resident of the county to register for a COVID-19 vaccine in that county -- registration is open to anyone in Texas. For those without internet access, Tarrant County is also taking registrations by phone at 817-248-6299. In Dallas County, call the DCHHS vaccine hotline at 1-855-IMMUNE9 (1-855-466-8639). In Denton County, call 940-349-2585.
For a more detailed breakdown of who is included in each priority group in Texas, see this page from the Texas DSHS.
“It’s been very hard as a leader in this company to say to staff, ‘I’m trying,’” Loengard said.
Why is vaccine hard to secure for these workers? The answer has multiple layers.
Home health workers typically work within patient’s homes, with some of their day-to-day work occurring inside hospitals and senior living facilities. But because they don't work in the same location throughout the week, they often aren’t included in official vaccine distributions for hospitals or nursing homes.
“What we’ve seen is in general, since it was given to health care systems, is that they vaccinated their own first -- understandably. Their staff has been very much at fore in fighting this virus and caring for patients,” she said.
Since companies like AccentCare operate nationwide, Loengard said they have to react to dozens of state regulations for vaccine rollout.
“Because all the vaccine has gone to state level, we have so many different plans and they have been similar but not exactly the same,” she explained. “And then most of the vaccine has gone to the healthcare systems, as you can imagine because of the requirement of a deep freeze for some of these vaccines. There’s been a great importance of having it centralized. This is not just something you can distribute to everyone.”
Despite multiple requests for partnerships to allocate vaccine for home health workers, Loengard said she keeps hitting walls, as preference is given to locations like hospital systems, senior living facilities, and vaccine hubs.
“It’s really put us at the mercy of our health care system partners,” she said. “Many of whom have really stepped up to the plate but [we’re having] to keep on top of it. Knocking on the door saying, ‘Have you finished vaccinating all of those who are most greatest risk in your hospital?’ and ‘Don’t forget about us!’”
She’s even tapped into her administrative staff to make phone calls to pharmacies to see if there’s a potential partnership there to allocate vaccine for her staff.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into turning over every stone to see if we can find a vaccine but as such an enormous health care company it doesn’t feel very satisfying,” Loengard said.
For now, home health care workers are having to fight through the county registration process, which is tricky enough anywhere you look.
“Through a lot of hard work we’ve been able to source various opportunities for our staff by sending out links to help them sign up immediately and telling them to bring their badge and bring their letter that says they’re an essential health care worker,” said Dr. Loengard.
She said she believes only about 10% out of the thousands on her home health care force have been able to get vaccinated so far. There are also reports that some facilities and clients are not allowing home health workers near patients until they are vaccinated.
The hope is that either the federal government or pharmacy chains can find a solution to prioritize them for vaccine.
“In my talks with the president of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, they’re not really seeing much conversation happening on the federal level for all of their members in this area of healthcare,” Loengard said. “We’d like for the government to recognize that we have been left out in his process and we have staff who really continue to be at risk and who need to be thought of.”