AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines arriving in Texas Monday, families of nursing home and assisted living residents are waiting to hear when their loved ones will be vaccinated.

These residents are among some of the first people in the state who are eligible to get a vaccine, along with healthcare workers.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency had to be strategic in choosing which healthcare systems they prioritized for this first week of delivery, because the Pfizer vaccine requires extremely cold temperatures for storage and delivery. More importantly, it must be delivered in shipments of 975 doses.

“Any of the providers who had registered with us and said, ‘We will be vaccinating at least 975 healthcare workers’—because that’s that number one priority group. That’s who received the vaccine this week,” said Chris Van Deusen, the DSHS spokesperson.

According to DSHS, the agency has requested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activate the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care vaccinations in the third week of distribution—that’s on Dec. 28.

That partnership program connects senior care facilities with Walgreen’s and CVS Pharmacy in order to distribute the vaccine on-site. Pharmacy employees will go to these facilities to offer free shots to any resident or employee who wants one.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced more than 1,200 skilled nursing facilities and over 2,000 other long-term care facilities in Texas signed up for this program, which totals more than 225,000 certified beds.

What do families think?

Cissy Sanders, whose mother lives in an Austin nursing home and who has become an outspoken advocate for more testing in long-term care, told KXAN she has some concerns.

“How many nursing home residents, if any, participated in the trials?” she asked.

She worries about any side effects of the vaccine for vulnerable senior residents, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease or dementia, that haven’t been studied specifically yet. She said she was concerned these residents are being treated as “guinea pigs” and hoped healthy adults and the nursing home staff would receive the vaccinations first.

“I support vaccines, and I have all my vaccinations. Everyone in my family has their vaccinations, but this is brand-new territory,” Sanders said. “Nursing home residents have taken the brunt of this pandemic, and it’s time for the general population to be the ‘control group.'”

Meanwhile, other families said the vaccine distribution on Monday gave them hope.

“I see my mom under very restricted circumstances two times a week, and it is not enough. I see the vaccine as a way to open that door a little bit further,” Genny Lutzel said.

Her mother lives in another Texas assisted living facility. Lutzel has some concerns, but told KXAN she felt vaccinations provide a “circle of protection” around staff, residents and family members like her who have experienced additional stress and loss throughout the pandemic.

“It is consuming our lives, especially if you have someone in long-term care, it is all day every day,” she said. “This is our way to find our way out.”

How are facilities preparing?

Senior living communities are preparing for preparing for the vaccine to arrive.

Mark Ranno, Executive Director of the Maravilla at the Domain in Austin, said they began working with CVS after they enrolled in the program. The pharmacy has already given some instructions about how rooms need to be set up for the administration of the vaccine, which could take three days or more.

“That’s really not an issue for us, because we have previously done flu shot vaccination clinics, and it’s pretty much the same set-up,” he explained.

The empty dining area at a senior living community in North Austin. (Photo provided by: Maravilla at The Domain)

Ranno said they also plan to stagger the days when staff receive their vaccines.

So far, Maravilla at the Domain has been able to keep COVID-19 out of their community, with zero cases reported among residents or employees. Ranno attributes this, in part, to their policy of continuously testing staff. Weekly, or sometimes bi-weekly, Ranno said they test 10% to 20% of their workforce with PCR tests. He noted results usually are returned within 24 to 48 hours.

“We’ve got a little bubble out here, and we do everything to protect our residents,” Ranno said. “It’s been very much a team effort. Testing is a big part of that process.”

He said vaccinations will add another layer of protection that could allow for more safe visits and activities, eventually.

“I think the excitement with the vaccination is, ‘Hey, we are going to back to life as we knew it, sooner verses later,'” he said. “Residents ask me every day, ‘When are we going to have our COVID vaccination clinic?'”