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More than 1,000 Arizona assisted living facilities still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines

Carlos Dennis, Ron DeSantis, Javier Crespo
Posted at 8:49 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 22:49:31-05

PHOENIX — Where is the vaccine?

It is the big question many families and assisted living facility operators are asking, as they see our state opening up the process to everyone over the age of 65 and teachers, meanwhile those who were under the impression they would be first in line now left wondering if the state has forgotten about them.

Even though the states have relied on the federal partnership with private pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to administer vaccines inside skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, a spokesperson for CVS tells, KGUN9's sister station ABC15, that Arizona officials did not activate their response to enter assisted living facilities until January 18.

CVS officials said many other states activated both skilled nursing homes and assisted living homes at the same time. The state of California activated vaccinations inside assisted living facilities on January 11, so why the big delay in Arizona?

At a press conference Friday afternoon, ABC15 got a chance to ask the state health director Dr. Cara Christ, why they had waited until the 18th to activate CVS vaccinations inside Arizona assisted living residents. Watch the full news conference in the player below.

"They had just finished the skilled nursing facilities, and we were not aware that they could have started that earlier. So, we're trying to get them as much vaccine as soon as we can, and keep the priority populations for our other populations as well," said Dr. Christ.

She also added that the state made sure to take vaccines for skilled nursing and assisted living facilities right off the top of all supplies they received before allocating them to other populations, so there would be no supply issue to get vaccines into these facilities.

Meantime, those with families inside assisted living facilities are reaching out to ABC15 asking why they have been forgotten.

Shari Smith has a 79-year-old mother in a memory care facility as she suffers from dementia. Smith says it is heartbreaking to see her mother not recognize her anymore, due to the very limited contact she can have with her mom, through glass barriers.

"The problem is we have no idea when it is going to happen," said Smith, adding that she saw her mom slipping away more and more every time she went to visit her. "This is a total fail, on the whole level by Arizona. Ducey is in hiding. They promised that they were going to get them vaccinated first."

CVS finally started entering some Valley assisted living facilities earlier this week to vaccinate residents. Despite the delay, the staff at Quail Park at Morrison Ranch and Mariposa Point of Mesa were thrilled to finally get their big day.

The atmosphere was festive with music, comedians, and prizes handed out at both facilities.

Jennifer Tonna, the owner of Emerald Glen Memory Care, said while she was disappointed with the delay, there was nothing she could do to control it. She was receiving many calls from frustrated family members asking when their loved ones would be getting vaccinated. Her staff and residents were finally able to roll up their sleeves on Thursday, after a two-week delay.

"I think we are getting one step closer to returning to normalcy," said Tonna.

Dawn Milburn at Quail Park at Morrison Ranch said the vaccine for them symbolized freedom and another step closer to getting out and about, leaving the facility, and seeing their families in person after a year of window visits and socially-distanced outdoor visits.

Leah Propst, who lives in a Mesa assisted living facility, said the isolation was starting to break her spirit.

"My whole world right now is my little apartment. This is my whole world right now," said Propst.

"We were promised we would be first. I know they are having trouble all over the nation with this vaccine roll-out, but that is no excuse," she added.

Scott Fischer, a task force member with the Arizona Attorney General's health and safety task force, said he was also disappointed to learn about the many assisted living residents who had not received their vaccinations yet.

Fischer said it was odd to him that he could take his parents to State Farm Stadium to get their shots before those in lockdown inside assisted living facilities were able to get their vaccines.

"I understood the progression would be hospital workers, medical frontline workers, skilled nursing, assisted nursing, the vulnerable people we have," said Fischer.

"They're still isolated from their families; they're still subject to their caregivers bringing the virus in. The last thing I want to do is have another month or six-week wait when the vaccine is available, and people are lined up at State Farm Stadium now," he added.

Karen Barno, President & CEO of the Arizona Assisted Federation of America, asked assisted living operators, residents, and families to be patient, saying the process had begun.

"They did hospitals and their workers in early December, then they moved to nursing homes, and then they moved to us. It is just a lot of buildings and people across the state that they have to get to," said Barno.

But families are impatient. Smith said every day she could not hug her mother was one day less, with her mother nearing the end of her life.

"I think they're failing. Failing at an exponential level," said Smith.

The state health department sent ABC15 this statement:

As I'm sure you know, this is a CDC program conducted in partnership with the two pharmacy companies. The program has visited all 140 skilled nursing facilities, where COVID-19 transmission has been especially pronounced, and has begun on assisted living facilities. The program has received ample vaccine as part of the state's weekly allocations from the federal government. If you haven't already, I would suggest reaching out to the program to find out about any specific challenges and plans.

ABC15 reached out to both CVS and Walgreens as well.

In a statement, a CVS spokeswoman says:

The state of Arizona activated skilled-nursing facilities on December 28, and we have completed administering the first doses for all 96 of these facilities that chose to partner with CVS Pharmacy, bringing peace of mind to thousands of long-term care residents, staff and their loved ones. Arizona activated assisted-living and other long-term care facilities on January 18, and over the coming week we’ll complete first doses in 35% of these 845 additional facilities with whom we are honored to serve. We continue to work closely with our partner facilities on scheduling and remain on track to meet our program commitments.

ABC15 asked CVS officials why Arizona waited until January 18 to activate them to enter assisted living facilities. The CVS spokeswoman did not have an answer, but did tell us that several other states had activated both skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities at the same time.

CVS officials went on to say that they hope to have 35% of the 845 assisted living facilities vaccinated within the next seven days. There are more than 2,000 assisted living facilities in Arizona.