South Carolina-based Agape Care is the first hospice provider in their home state to directly administer COVID-19 vaccinations to staff and is now ramping up to offer vaccinations to the general public. The organization was able to procure vaccine following discussions to educate state officials about the importance of hospice and palliative care staff as frontline workers.
Agape collaborated with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to ensure that its clinical teams were briefed and trained on vaccine protocols. The company has received 1,300 doses to date, CEO Troy Yarborough told Hospice News. South Carolina is currently in Phase 1A of vaccine deployment, which is focused on health care workers, high-risk populations and critical infrastructure personnel.
“We were engaging the state early in discussions and moved pretty quickly to make sure that hospice workers were included in the 1A rollout,” Yarborough said. “That’s really what took us down the path of using our unique footprint to offer the state a partnership. We take care of our employees so that they can take better care of our patients, and then turn our intentions as subsequent phases begin to roll out to reach into the community.”
Agape intends to use its existing infrastructure to vaccinate community residents in their homes, eliminating the need for vulnerable individuals to travel to receive their doses. The hospice and palliative care provider’s footprint extends through all 46 South Carolina counties with a workforce that resides in 44 of those regions serving more than 1,500 patients daily. Many of these areas are rural, which complicates elderly residents’ ability to visit a mass vaccination site.
The organization is working with the state to develop a community distribution plan to vaccinate as many as 11,000 people throughout their service area. It’s employee vaccination program launched Feb. 8. Each vaccine recipient will be registered wit the Vaccination Administration System, managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Participation is encouraged but optional for staff. One-third of their employees chose to be vaccinated during the first week of availability. Yarborough said the organization expects about a 60% to 70% acceptance rate. Company executives have visited the organization’s branch locations, speaking with staff about the benefits of the vaccine and to discuss their concerns.
“We are not requiring the staff to be vaccinated. We are respecting that there’s varied opinions around the vaccine and the safety of the vaccine,” Yarborough said.”I have had extensive conversations with staff, and I do believe that over time we will see those numbers rise as people become more comfortable.”
Staff and community vaccinations may improve providers’ ability to access patients in nursing homes and other facilities. This has been a top concern for hospice leaders during 2020 and 2021, as nursing homes have imposed strict limitations as to who may enter due to fears of spreading the virus. While in many cases hospice nurses have been allowed to come in, most patients have not been able to receive the full benefit of the interdisciplinary care model.
Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) show that numbers are starting to come down as more residents become vaccinated. During the week of Jan. 17, about 17,500 new infections occurred in nursing homes. Just one month earlier around Dec. 20, weekly cases exceeded 32,000.
“The facilities have been in a difficult situation. Patient safety is paramount, and it’s challenging to maintain a level of care inside of a facility and at the same time restrict visitors,” Yarborough told Hospice News. “The availability of the vaccine adds another layer of protection to our employees who are going in and out of these facilities as well as patients and residents.”