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caption: Bellevue firefighter Ryan Armstrong, right, administers the first dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine for Hai Pham, left, an employee at the Optimus Family Home on Friday, February 5, 2021, in Bellevue.
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Bellevue firefighter Ryan Armstrong, right, administers the first dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine for Hai Pham, left, an employee at the Optimus Family Home on Friday, February 5, 2021, in Bellevue.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

As adult family homes fall through vaccine system cracks, Seattle and Bellevue fire departments help pull them out

Older adults in Covid-vulnerable living situations were supposed to be at the front of the vaccine line. Instead, people in facilities known as adult family homes are still waiting to get vaccinated.

KUOW All Things Considered host, Kim Malcom spoke to reporter Anna Boiko-Weyrauch these cracks in the vaccine system and what’s being done.

Kim Malcolm: Anna, what is the problem here?

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: It’s a little complicated but I’m going to walk you through it. First, let’s go back in time – all the way to October 2020. That’s when the Trump administration announced this new partnership with the pharmacies CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate people in long-term care facilities. Those are places like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

There’s also another kind of place older adults can live and get care in the state, called adult family homes. They are basically normal houses with up to six adults living together and getting taken care of. There are more than 3,380 of these places in the state.

Malcolm: Seems like a place like that with vulnerable adults living together would qualify under the first phases of the vaccine rollout.

Boiko-Weyrauch: It sure does. And that’s where things get complicated. The adult family homes got the message they were not eligible. That’s according to John Ficker who heads the Adult Family Home Council of Washington state, which advocates for the homes. For example, he says if you went online to register for the federal vaccine partnership, you couldn’t actually sign up as an adult family home.

“In the process of actually registering one of the things you had to do is select your facility type. And there was no adult family home listing,” Ficker said. “There was, I want to say, like, ‘residential home,’ which actually has a different meaning or ‘group homes.’ But all these things have different designations, they’re not adult family homes.”

Then Ficker says adult family homes were told they were eligible. But there was only a two week sign-up window and they hit the deadline. Then, apparently the deadline got extended, he said, but they didn’t get the message.

Malcolm: How many places were left out?

Boiko-Weyrauch: Ficker says in all two thirds of the homes -- around two thousand places -- did not sign up for the federal vaccination program.

Malcolm: That seems like a lot of places vulnerable adults live. So, what’s the solution here?

Boiko-Weyrauch: Well, in mid-January, fire departments in Seattle and Bellevue launched programs to go door-to-door to vaccinate these homes.

I talked to Chuck Heitz about it. He’s in charge of medical services for Bellevue Fire. He was so excited to tell me about it.

“What’s the job of the Bellevue Fire Department? You can talk about putting out fires and pulling people out of car accidents and stuff like that, but really our job is helping people,” Heitz said. “This is just another opportunity for us to help those members of the community.”

caption: Bellevue firefighters Ryan Armstrong, left, and Alexa Dillhoff, right load supplies into a vehicle after vaccinating residents of the Optimus Family Home against Covid-19 on Friday, February 5, 2021, in Bellevue.
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Bellevue firefighters Ryan Armstrong, left, and Alexa Dillhoff, right load supplies into a vehicle after vaccinating residents of the Optimus Family Home against Covid-19 on Friday, February 5, 2021, in Bellevue.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Malcolm: And you went to one of these homes to see the vaccinations in action, right?

Boiko-Weyrauch: Right, I visited Optimus Family Home in Bellevue. It’s a house at the end of a dead-end road, surrounded by really tall cedar trees. Six residents live there along with six staff members. They speak Vietnamese in the home. Many of the residents are in wheelchairs and have dementia.

“They’re all 90 plus in there, so they barely talk,” said Phuong Truong, who helps run the home. “Pretty much they wake up, they eat and they go to bed. Even if you try to talk to them, they don’t understand. They can’t even talk to us.”

So, they certainly can’t navigate the state’s complicated vaccination system. As far as getting the residents and staff vaccinated, Truong didn’t know about the federal partnership with pharmacies that was supposed to help them. Instead he tried to sign up the residents online at different hospitals and didn’t find any open appointments

“I looked on the websites, right? Filled, filled, filled, filled,” Truong said. “They have weekly schedules, and then you look through the last date they post that’s available, all the spots have been filled up.”

Instead, he got a call from the Bellevue fire department one day, basically but of the blue. The mobile vaccination team showed up, and Truong was really happy. The Bellevue and Seattle fire departments have vaccinated 166 adult family homes as of the end of last week.

The Bellevue Fire Department is also helping expand the program to Shoreline and Eastside Fire and Rescue, which serves communities in east King County.