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‘What a relief’: Haven Health vaccinates residents and staff for COVID-19
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‘What a relief’: Haven Health vaccinates residents and staff for COVID-19

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From his current residence at Haven Health of Flagstaff, 73-year-old Frank Bilagody has been keeping up with pandemic news.

He has lost eight family members in Tuba City to COVID-19 as he has watched the case numbers continue to climb, especially on the Navajo Nation, so when he, like other local Haven Health residents and staff, had the opportunity to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine this week, he was eager to do so.

“You know, we didn’t see this coming. Suddenly it’s here and we did our best to protect ourselves, doing this,” Bilagody said, pointing to his face mask, “keeping our hands clean, and staying away from people, even relatives. It’s kind of sad. You can’t really believe all this is happening. You can’t even talk to people about it. I was saying the other day to my family, we’re all kind of scared of each other now.”

As Linnibah Lee, 58, who is originally from Chinle, rubbed her right arm gently after receiving her vaccination Thursday — the same arm where she received her flu shot in October — she explained that her brother caught the virus and was hospitalized for several days in Whiteriver.

“If we get our shots, then we won’t get sick. And if you don’t get your shot, you can probably get [the virus] right away like that, and I don’t want to do that. It’s nice for me to have it,” Lee said of the vaccine. “We don’t want to get sick. We want to save our life to do something good.”

Vaccinations at Haven Health this week were offered through a Walgreens program, a representative of which reached out three weeks ago to begin planning the first of two vaccination clinics for the rehabilitation center. Residents and staff who agreed to the voluntary vaccination will receive their second doses in early February.

Long-term care facility staff and residents qualify for the first phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution alongside healthcare and emergency medical service workers.

Shelly Howdeshell, executive director of Haven Health of Flagstaff, said she could not overstate the importance of having these vaccinations available for residents.

“This is our most vulnerable population and they’ve been isolated for almost a year now, so this is a big deal to them. A large part of our population is Navajo and the reservation has been hit hard, so for that group it means even more,” she said.

Of the 77 individuals in-house on Thursday, Howdeshell said more than 90% agreed to be vaccinated. About 30 of those are new patients currently in the center’s “transition unit,” where they are quarantined for 14 days after arriving to ensure they do not have COVID-19. This group received their vaccinations Friday, separately from other residents.

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Staff worked to educate the few who initially declined, using translators as needed, to communicate the benefits of the vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine was shown to be 94.1% effective in preventing the coronavirus during its clinical trial.

Resident Johnny Smith, 71, though, admitted he didn’t need to know the specifics of how the vaccine worked to want it. His response to his Thursday vaccination was straightforward: “What a relief!”

The occasional Haven Health employee has tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the course of the pandemic, Howdeshell said, but each time a spread to residents and other employees was avoided.

“I owe that all to our infection control measures. And it’s a little bit of luck, I’m sure,” Howdeshell said, reaching to knock on a wooden chair rail running the length of the wall behind her.

In addition to distancing residents from one another and limiting social activities, the center has been following state and federal guidelines for its visitor policies, allowing residents to see their families only through closed windows or by videoconferencing. Families of those on hospice or at the end of life are allowed in the building, but only after COVID-19 screenings.

Howdeshell said she hopes once the vaccine is distributed more widely throughout the community, these restrictions will be able to be relaxed.

“For the most part, it’s been a long time since these guys have hugged their family,” she said.

Howdeshell was among numerous employees who also received their vaccination Thursday. Christian Bustillo, assistant director of nursing, said he chose to be vaccinated for the sake of the same patients who opted to get the shot this week.

“This age group, the geriatric group, they’re more prone to getting COVID and being the ones to not make it out typically, so for them it’s like a force field, just a little bit of extra protection if we were to have an outbreak,” Bustillo said. “It’s more for their own safety so they can get the antibodies and get it situated. If they were to get [COVID-19], knock on wood, they would have a better chance with it.”

As of Friday, 6,613 vaccines have been administered throughout Coconino County, with an additional 962 doses currently reserved for appointments. Health care workers; emergency medical services workers; long-term care facility staff and residents; education and child care workers; law enforcement and protective services workers; and adults age 65 and older are currently eligible to receive the vaccine as part of Phase 1b.

All first dose appointments at the Fort Tuthill vaccination site are booked; however, county health officials are encouraging individuals to check frequently in case there are cancellations. For more information on COVID-19 vaccinations in Coconino County and to check for appointment availability, visit www.coconino.az.gov/covid19vaccine or call 928-679-7300.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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