Fred Rzepka, the owner of Wilton Meadows Health and Rehabilitation Center, took off his black sweater, secured his N95 mask and rolled the sleeve of his lavender button-down up to his shoulder.

Though any grin was concealed by his mask, the relief, excitement and emotion around the room was evident. With a round of applause and a bandaid badge, the Wilton Meadows family entered a new stage in its long fight against COVID-19 – the long-awaited vaccines were here.

“It has been an extremely challenging year for long-term care staff and residents as well as their loved ones,” administrator Ellen Casey said. “We are very excited that we have this vaccine and that it is safe and effective.”

Approximately 250 Wilton Meadows employees and residents received the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, Dec. 30, at Wilton Meadow’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic, an emotional milestone for the community which has been touched by COVID-19 in deeply personal ways.

Remarks of “That’s it?” “I’m smiling under my mask,” happy dances, air fist bumps and ‘thumbs up’ accompanied the shots, with a nearly unanimous feeling of relief.

Vaccinations were being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with employees vaccinated on-site and residents vaccinated in their rooms.

Casey said the vaccines arrived after coordination with the state and CVS. The pharmacy will store, provide and administer the vaccine for both the first and second doses, she said. Today, seven CVS employees were on-site to facilitate the process.

Each nursing home employee filled out a consent form, had their temperature taken, and was screened with a series of questions before receiving the vaccination.

The Wilton Meadows community members will receive the second dose of their vaccine protocols in three weeks, on Jan. 20. Casey said The Greens at Cannondale community members are expected to receive their first dose on Jan. 19.

According to Casey, communication with the state has been “excellent.” She believes smaller nursing homes were among the first in the state to receive the vaccines when they first became available two weeks ago, as distributing them requires significant coordination with larger nursing homes of Wilton Meadow’s size.

“It’s gone very smoothly for us,” Casey said. “We’re glad that we didn’t have to wait too long but also glad that we weren’t the first, I’d say.”

Maggie Hansley, a nurse practitioner at Wilton Meadows, said that she is proud to get the vaccine today.

“Oftentimes health care is in the back of the line, we let everyone go first,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have this opportunity here.”

Striking a Personal Chord

Though getting the vaccine is not mandatory, Casey said the team is “very pleased with the response rate.”

“The more of us that get vaccinated, the better we can protect our families and our community against potential outbreaks,” she said, “and we can save lives, which we were unable to do in the very beginning of the pandemic.”

Joana Milla, Director of Nursing at Wilton Meadows, received her vaccine today in what was an emotional and exciting moment for her.

In the early months of the pandemic, the Wilton Meadows and the Greens at Cannondale were hit with a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and residents.

“A lot of us died, a lot of families cried in this community,” Milla said. “At the beginning, we didn’t have a lot of support … but we moved forward.”

“We are strong,” she added.

The majority of employees vaccinated today were here in March when the outbreak occurred, Casey said. She said it is a testament to the staff and team that they were able to persevere to this moment, with no new COVID cases since early May.

“I’m just so proud of the team here at Wilton Meadows,” Casey said.

The Wilton Meadows team has worked to secure PPE, stay up to date on the most recent health information and guidance and communicate with local and state health departments since the start of the pandemic to make a moment like this possible.

Throughout the pandemic, Casey has been on weekly calls with family members and staff with up to date COVID-19 information. She and the team have facilitated window visits, virtual visits and, in the later months, in-person visits in a heated outdoor tent with safety precautions in place.

Wilton Meadows is also part of the nationwide #GetVaccinated campaign by American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) to promote vaccination and education about the vaccine.

Though so much has changed about the way they do their jobs, and so many parts of their job may have changed forever, Casey said this is one of the first true steps forward for healthcare.

“The vaccine will definitely be a turning point in the fight against COVID-19,” she said.

Administrator Ellen Casey receiving the first dose of the vaccine

Casey was personally “excited and emotional” to receive the vaccine, especially, she said, one that has gone through extensive testing and clinical trials to achieve the highest standards of safety. She hopes the Wilton community will also listen to science and trust the vaccine, to help finally stop the spread of this “awful” virus.

She said Wilton Meadows will continue to keep all necessary COVID-19 safety precautions after the vaccinations, and will continue to work with the local and state health departments moving forward.

“It’s very emotional, it’s very exciting,” she said. “We are super proud to be a part of it.”

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