(WTXL) — Inside RoseCastle at Delaney Creek assisted living facility in Hillsborough County, normal is finally sounding happy again. It’s been a long time.
Executive Director Christopher Kmelt recalls down to the minute when the coronavirus forced him to shut his facility doors.
“March 13th, 2020, at 2:45 p.m.,” Kmelt said before getting emotional.
“It was brutal. It was brutal to tell those families, residents and staff members that there’s a virus we don’t know anything about and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he said.
This time last year, his facility had just a few COVID-19 positive residents. While none of the residents exhibited any symptoms, Kmelt said they were preparing for a COVID wing in the facility and an unknown future.
This year, the vaccine has brought the facility hope.
“Hope for seeing families, hope to be able to take our residents on a bus trip to see the Skyway bridge and the lights and the pelicans. Hope for whatever it is that makes you happy at the end of the day,” said Kmelt.
On Tuesday, nearly 100% of residents at the facility are vaccinated and all but three of its 35 member staff are vaccinated. Of the three staff members who are not vaccinated, two are currently pregnant and one has an allergy keeping them from getting vaccinated, Kmelt said.
In all, the facility has a 90.5% vaccine rate among staff and residents. Such a high vaccination rate isn’t typical in the industry. Since the vaccine became available, long-term care centers have struggled to get staff to roll up their sleeves.
As of the beginning of this month, less than half of employees in Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities are vaccinated, according to the Agency for Healthcare Administration. The agency recently stopped tracking vaccinations in long-term care centers as the state continues to rebound from the pandemic.
Kmelt credits ongoing education, one-on-one meetings and group sessions with doctors and even religious leaders as part of his strategy to get hesitant staff on board with getting the shots.
“You can’t treat misinformation if you don’t know what it is,” Kmelt said.
In Broward County, Odalys Cordero owns and operates A Loving Heart. The company is made up of 6 small group homes for children and adults with special needs. Out of its 50 total residents and staff, Cordero said all but two children are vaccinated.
“We’re at 94% vaccination rate, which is pretty amazing,” Cordero said. “As caregivers, it’s our responsibility to protect the vulnerable population that we serve and having the vaccine is the most responsible thing we can do."
Cordero also credits ongoing education and lots of encouragement as her secret to getting her staff and residents vaccinated.
With such high vaccination rates, both RoseCastle at Delaney Creek and A Loving Heart are now back to hosting activities, socials and full dining rooms. Residents at A Loving Heart have also gone back to work and school.
Neither facility has had any new COVID cases, according to its operators.
“Since vaccinations, we’ve had none,” said Kmelt.
But in an industry plagued with high staff turnover, Kmelt and Cordero know keeping high vaccination rates among staff could be a challenge.
Cordero hasn’t gone so far as to mandate her staff to be vaccinated but she acknowledged she would be hesitant hiring someone who wasn’t on board with being vaccinated.
Kmelt said he makes sure potential new hires and residents know where he stands on staff and resident vaccinations.
“I tell them these are our vaccination rates and we would like to see you on board with these vaccination rates,” he said. “This facility is at almost 91% vaccinated, we’d like to maintain that.”