Oak Cottage of Santa Barbara
Residents have not been scheduled for COVID-19 vaccine appointments yet at Oak Cottage of Santa Barbara at 1820 De la Vina St., a retirement community specializing in dementia care and Alzheimer’s disease. Oak Cottage and many other long-term care communities are eligible for vaccines, but there are limited supplies for the thousands of waiting residents. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Deanna Zachrisson doesn’t know when her husband, a 75-year-old veteran living at Oak Cottage of Santa Barbara, will get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Zachrisson said she checks her email a couple of times a day for details and waits to be contacted over the phone, although it has been difficult to get information. 

“I just wish there was a sense that you knew what was happening,” Zachrisson said, “and a sense that there was a timeline.”

As the COVID-19 vaccine gets distributed throughout Santa Barbara County, some senior residents in long-term care facilities have not received vaccination appointments.

Skilled-nursing, assisted-living and other facilities serving older, at-risk residents are the highest priority for vaccinations, along with patient-facing health care and emergency medical workers, according to the state framework. 

Zachrisson’s husband, who uses a wheelchair, has lived for the past year at Oak Cottage, which is a retirement community for seniors with age-related cognitive impairment, specializing in dementia care and Alzheimer’s disease.

Zachrisson said she signed the COVID-19 vaccine consent form in December, and it provided a sense of having a light at the end of the tunnel after months of pandemic-related challenges.  

For months, Zachrisson said, all that residents heard about the vaccine was that health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities would be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.

She stressed that it is in no way because of a lack of trying that Oak Cottage management staff have no specific vaccine information, and it feels like there is “no one to turn to.”

“As it seems like we are moving on to the general population, don’t forget the people we were supposedly prioritizing,” Zachrisson said. “They haven’t been reached yet.”

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said that all residents and staff members at the county’s 14 skilled-nursing facilities have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by now. 

That was accomplished through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program (with CVS and Walgreens) and through the local Public Health Department, Ruiz said.

Ruiz said assisted-living facilities were not included — at least initially — in the federal pharmacy partnership program.

“This may change in the coming weeks,” Ruiz told Noozhawk via email.

To serve that need, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department is vaccinating staff and some residents from those facilities at its own community vaccine clinics, and it plans to establish a mobile unit to bring vaccines directly to facilities.

Jan Koegler, who heads the Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, said Tuesday that “none of our skilled nursing are really off schedule,” with regards to the COVID-19 vaccination in the county. Some of the assisted-living facilities in the county have had more of a delay because the federal program prioritized skilled-nursing facilities, Koegler added.

Public health officials are reaching out to all assisted-living facilities, which serve thousands of people, and making sure they know that they are eligible for vaccinations now.

“We are following up with them,” Koegler said. “We will reserve appointments for the assisted and certainly the skilled living facilities.”

At least two skilled-nursing facilities were vaccinated by local hospitals and the Public Health Department instead of the federal pharmacy program. 

“Initially, residents of the Comprehensive Care Center were to be vaccinated by Walgreens, in conjunction with the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program. However, as this was not happening in a timely manner, LVMC took the initiative and vaccinated the majority of residents on Dec. 28,” Lompoc Valley Medical Center CEO Steve Popkin told Noozhawk.

“We did have one facility that didn’t sign up, and Marian (Regional Medical Center) vaccinated that facility this week, and we have been vaccinating their staff at our (clinics),” Koegler said Tuesday.

The Public Health Department’s community data dashboard lists the local skilled-nursing facilities as: Atterdag Care Center in Solvang, Buena Vista Care Center in Goleta, Casa Dorinda in Montecito, Channel Islands Post Acute in Santa Barbara, Country Oaks Care Center in Santa Maria, the Lompoc Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the Lompoc Valley Medical Center Comprehensive Care Center, Marian Regional Medical Center, Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital in Santa Barbara, Samarkand Skilled Nursing Facility in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Post Acute, The Californian of Santa Barbara, Valle Verde Health Facility in Santa Barbara and Villa Maria Post Acute in Santa Maria. 

The first COVID-19 vaccines were delivered and administered to health care workers in Santa Barbara County a month ago. 

To date, the Public Health Department has been allocated more than 38,000 COVID-19 doses, and county providers have administered more than 18,000 vaccine doses.

There are limited supplies of vaccines available in the county, and the current groups eligible to get a vaccination appointment include patient-facing health care workers, emergency medical workers, staff and residents in long-term care facilities, and people age 75 or older.

The Public Health Department estimates that there are 32,000 people in the age 75-plus category living in the county, so there will not be enough vaccine doses or appointments available for everyone who wants a vaccine to get it right away. 

Click here for a Noozhawk Q&A about the Santa Barbara County COVID-19 vaccine distribution process.

Heritage House, on Hollister Avenue in Santa Barbara, is a licensed retirement care facility that is home to people who need assistance with activities of daily living. The facility’s operations director, Philippe de L’Arbre, said there are more than 55 residents and more than 50 staff members. 

“Every day that passes without our residents vaccinated is one more day that they don’t have the ability to fight it off with a vaccine on board,” de L’Arbre said.

Last fall, Heritage House signed up for the COVID-19 pharmacy partnership program to get vaccinations for residents and staff. Heritage House already has a relationship with Omnicare CVS, and the local CVS has been a go-to for the flu vaccines to residents for the past couple of years, de L’Arbre said.

“We figured that would be the path of least resistance, and we kind of waited and waited and waited,” de L’Arbre said.

Up until a few days ago, Heritage House didn’t have a schedule for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

“We were ready to be scheduled, but we weren’t scheduled,” de L’Arbre said.

As of Tuesday, appointments were scheduled for first and second doses at Heritage House. 

“We have a big sense of relief,” de L’Arbre said.

He said the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has been available for questions and concerns about the COVID-19 vaccination process. 

Some Santa Barbara-area assisted-living and long-term care facilities have had COVID-19 vaccination success stories. 

Maravilla resident Ted Wuerthner said getting the first coronavirus vaccine was extraordinarily well organized at the Santa Barbara senior living community, which includes assisted living, independent living and memory care. He completed the paperwork to get the vaccine about a week before the injection date.

“It is a great sense of security and relief to know I have the first injection and the second is coming,” said Wuerthner, who is 88.

Maravilla Santa Barbara administered the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine on site last week, in partnership with CVS, and Wuerthner said he is scheduled to get his second dose in February. 

Wuerthner, an independent-living resident, said eight or nine people were in line ahead of him at the waiting area for the big day. He waited in line for less than 10 minutes.

“It progressed quite quickly to get into the building,” Wuerthner said.

Wuerthner had his temperature taken, had his paperwork double-checked and got vaccinated.

“I was very happy to get the first shot,” he said. Afterward, he stayed in a nearby outside area for about 15 minutes to be monitored in case of adverse effects, which is the standard policy for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I felt much better knowing I had a little bit of protection,” Wuerthner said.

The COVID-19 vaccines become fully effective a few weeks after the second dose, and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 disease in clinical trials.

Wuerthner said he moved from the Palo Alto area to be closer to family members who are living in Ventura. He has resided at the Maravilla retirement community, at 5486 Calle Real, for eight years.

Wuerthner said he sent a text message to his daughters after receiving a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“They were delighted,” he said.

“I have been pleasantly surprised at how good the health care is here,” he added, giving a specific shout-out to Sansum Clinic

During a COVID-19 briefing last week, Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg emphasized the importance of vaccinating people in congregate living settings, including skilled-nursing facilities. 

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department photo

(Santa Barbara County Public Health Department graphic)

“It’s extremely challenging because, you know, elderly people who are frail and live in these environments, they have the highest fatality rate of all age groups by far,” Ansorg said. “Anywhere between 25% to 30% of infected elderly folks in these settings actually die from it.” 

Ansorg said California and county public health teams work with the facilities on prevention and assessments, “but once a facility has a significant outbreak among residents, this is difficult to manage.” 

Twelve of the 14 local skilled-nursing facilities have experienced fatal COVID-19 outbreaks, with at least one resident death, according to the county Public Health Department. The county and state do not report facility-based numbers of fewer than 11, so the exact numbers are undisclosed.

Country Oaks Care Center in Santa Maria had 12 resident deaths during a summertime outbreak, and there were dozens of cases reported among residents and staff members. 

At least 83 of the county’s 243 COVID-19-related deaths have been connected to an outbreak at a congregate living facility, including 29 of the deaths reported in January. 

People older than age 70 are overly represented in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths, and even as the number of cases increased in every age group, older adults have been the ones overwhelmingly dying of the disease, according to public health data

Demographic data shared in December showed that people older than age 70 represent 6% of the local cases, but account for 22% of the hospitalizations and 64% of the COVID-19-related deaths in Santa Barbara County. 

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.