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An injection of hope

More than 400 vaccinated at Friendship Haven

-Submitted photo
Dean Anderson became the first resident to receive a COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday at Friendship Haven, as CVS Pharmacy administered over 400 vaccines to residents and staff.

As Friendship Haven residents felt a slight pinch in their arms, the first COVID-19 vaccinations Tuesday produced a perhaps intangible feeling that has been absent for nearly a year: hope.

“It was amazing – totally and completely amazing,” said Julie Thorson, president and CEO of Friendship Haven, after the vaccine clinic gave first shots to approximately 410 residents. “For 11 months, we were so focused on fear and worry. Today was a celebration. I saw people so excited to be around other people.”

It took some getting used to, she said. Hair had grown or gotten thinner for many over the last 11 months, and it took a moment to recognize everyone in their personal protective equipment.

But looking around, Thorson said the feeling of hope was plain as day on most faces. Even masks and goggles couldn’t conceal the radiance of residents’ beaming smiles.

As they each got jabbed, one by one, they got the chance to talk and see each other for the first time in many months. The landmark occasion gave them reminders of the past and a look into the future’s possibilities.

-Submitted photo
Tori Johnson, director of catalyst therapy at Friendship Haven, was one of the staff members vaccinated at a clinic Tuesday.

“I’ll get another shot tomorrow if we can do this again,” said one resident, according to Thorson.

“This reminds me of when I was in the service,” said another.

In simple ways, residents articulated the feeling of seeing the beginning of the end for a dark year in independent living and long-term care homes, as sterile needles pierced through vaccine vials – more than a speechless Thorson could offer herself in a moment of awe she didn’t think words could do justice.

In just under five hours, CVS Pharmacy administered the first dose of the vaccine to residents like clockwork. The next clinics on Feb. 2 and Feb. 23 will vaccinate even more of Friendship Haven’s roughly 600 residents and staff. Residents who received their first Pfizer BioNTech dose today will need to receive another one in three weeks for full protection.

Residents have expressed a high rate of confidence in the vaccine, with 83 to 95% of them showing interest in receiving it in various neighborhoods of the campus. No prominent concerns about it have been expressed, so far.

-Submitted photo
CVS Pharmacy employees helped administer vaccines to over 400 residents at Friendship Haven Tuesday, the first sign of hope in a pandemic that has left residents in isolation for nearly a year.

“Really, residents embraced this,” Thorson said.

After many residents got their shot, they filed into the Tompkins Celebration Center to take fun photos with a photo frame, smile and laugh as they posted their pictures to social media. For Thorson, it was a fitting location for the momentous, rewarding occasion in the place where residents and staff worship, celebrate and train together.

And in that moment, the president said it was difficult not to physically embrace one another after 11 long months of isolation.

“We feel like we’re sticking together,” she said. “There’s been a lot of tears here during this time. … (The virus) has touched us all in a very personal way.”

But while this isn’t the end of a difficult road, she said it’s one step closer to a better tomorrow.

“The way we’re looking at today is one more step forward, a tool that we can use to get a sense of…” Thorson said, stopping herself.

Normalcy wasn’t the right word – things will never be the same after the trauma brought by a pandemic, she said. It was simply a step closer to bringing hope to all.

After 68 deaths from the virus in Webster County, it’s not a step taken lightly.

The future ahead for activities and visitation at Friendship Haven is uncertain as leadership awaits guidance on post-vaccination life, including whether it will be safe for residents to gather for games or see their grandchildren after their second shot. Thorson said guidance has not been updated to advise places like Friendship Haven what will be safe or unsafe.

“For a lot of this, we are using our judgment,” she said.

Though the campus has not had any positive coronavirus cases with residents since Dec. 7, Thorson said one positive employee at the moment means they cannot yet lift restrictions on visitors other than exceptions permitted for compassionate care and end-of-life visits.

But with just a glimmer of hope gleaming from the ends of needles, residents have a reason to be more optimistic going forward into 2021.

“We all get energy from others. When we take that energy away, it’s harmful,” Thorson said. “One of the things most difficult during the pandemic for us was that a lot of choices were taken away. For a lot of our residents, taking away choice does something to a person.”

After the sacrifices made by frontline health care workers, Thorson wanted to set the tone with a new choice, too. The CEO made herself the very last one in line to be inoculated.

“To me, that was symbolic in that we need to put others ahead of ourselves,” she said.

After general delays in the vaccine rollout nationwide, she wants her residents to know they come first – a selfless example she hopes will reverberate to a country clamoring for recovery.

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