When U.S. Air Force veteran Robert Aucoin got his first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, he fist bumped a nurse standing nearby.
“Leading the way,” said Aucoin, 78, who was the first resident vaccinated at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
Across the state, at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, World War II veteran Dominic Pitella got his shot as vaccinations began at the state’s two long-term care facilities for veterans, both of which saw dozens of residents die in coronavirus outbreaks this year.
It was a milestone in the ongoing effort to keep the virus out of the nursing homes — but family members and advocates said it was also a crucial step toward letting loved ones back in.
For nine months, veterans and their families have had few chances to see each other in person. Outdoor visits resumed in Holyoke in June, only to be suspended in September when an administrator tested positive for the virus. Visits were suspended indefinitely in November as cases and deaths surged.
Before the pandemic, East Longmeadow resident Cheryl Turgeon went to the Holyoke home three or four times a week to visit her father, Korean War combat veteran Dennis Thresher. When she watched a television broadcast of Aucoin getting his shot Tuesday morning, she clapped.
“Just watching the first veteran today — there’s some sense of hope, relief and peace that we can start to put this behind us,” Turgeon said.
Having not seen her father since visits ended Nov. 20, Turgeon said, “Families do not want to be kept apart any longer. We want to let them know we love them and haven’t forgotten them.”
CVS Health staff prepare for the vaccinations Tuesday.
The vaccine will help save the lives of some of those most at risk of dying from COVID-19, said John Paradis, a former deputy superintendent at the Holyoke home and member of a coalition pushing for more state funding, more staffing and a new facility. But it’s also a step toward restoring lost connections.
“Today’s news means, to me, that we’re on a path forward to a day when families can see their loved ones again — and that veterans who are still suffering from isolation, depression, anxiety and fear can once again live their lives to the fullest extent, that they have earned through their service to our nation,” Paradis said.
State Sen. John C. Velis, a U.S. Army Reserve combat veteran whose district includes Holyoke, said he was glad to see the vaccinations begin — and that it’s critical to ensure the process is swift.
“The visiting hours have continuously been on hold because of the potential cases, for both residents and staff, which has just been tremendously hard for the families and veterans of Western Mass,” he said, describing “heartbreaking” conversations with family members who have been unable to visit the home. He added, “All they want to do is get in there and give dad, mom, brother, sister a hug, and tell them they love them.”
CVS pharmacist Alhan Fadiani administers the vaccine to World War II veteran Dominic Pitella at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe
State officials said Tuesday that vaccination clinics will be held at both homes over the next several weeks. Vaccination is voluntary, but the state is encouraging all residents and employees to get the shots.
Aucoin, a control tower operator in the Vietnam era at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, has lived at the Holyoke home since April 2018 and is one of about 100 residents at the facility now. Another two dozen have been moved to off-site locations, including a skilled nursing unit at Holyoke Medical Center, where vaccinations began Dec. 17.
“My wish is that everyone in the world can get the vaccine,” Aucoin said in a statement released by the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
The state did not have a firm count Tuesday of the number of veterans and employees who would be vaccinated at each facility.
The crisis and tragedy in Holyoke — which led to multiple investigations, criminal charges against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton, and the resignation of state Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Ureña — has often overshadowed the outbreak in Chelsea, where more than 30 residents died.
Gov. Charlie Baker in October appointed Cheryl Lussier Poppe, the superintendent at the 139-bed Chelsea home and interim superintendent in Holyoke, to lead the Department of Veterans’ Services.
At the Holyoke home, 76 residents who tested positive for COVID-19 died between late March and mid-June. Earlier this month a veteran who has lived at the Holyoke Medical Center unit since April died after testing positive. Three more veterans there have since been diagnosed with COVID-19, the state said in its latest weekly update.
Baker said Tuesday that the vaccine rollout at the homes “provides relief and hope that there are brighter days ahead for all.” The homes are participating in a pharmacy partnership program for vaccination administration through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Workers from CVS were at the Holyoke home Tuesday.
The Soldiers’ Home vaccinations came amid a broader vaccination effort that began Monday at Massachusetts long-term care facilities, where residents account for about 60% of the state’s 12,000-plus confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths.
As families wait for the day when they can visit again — relying on nurses and other staff in the meantime to help set up video chats and calls — Velis pledged to continue working with administrators and advocating for steps to safeguard the veterans’ emotional wellbeing.
“One thing I really need to ensure is that in the absence of these visits, veterans are being emotionally engaged,” he said. “They’ve earned it, right? We’re talking about the most selfless population in the world.”
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