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For 1 Health Care Worker, Waiting For COVID-19 Vaccine Is A Nightmare

NOEL KING, HOST:

For some frontline health care workers, waiting to get vaccinated is a nightmare. The rollout is happening, but it's a long, slow process. Some clinicians are being told to just wait. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station GBH has the story of a nursing assistant in central Massachusetts.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Lately, Carlos Reyes has been having nightmares.

CARLOS REYES: And it's terrible. And I wake up several times a night.

EMANUEL: It's always the same plot. He comes home from his job at a nursing home, where he's often working with COVID patients. And in reality, he wears a mask at home and eats alone in his bedroom. But in the dream...

REYES: I come home, and I just want to see my family. Next thing I know, they're contaminated. They have COVID - and my family and my parents.

EMANUEL: He says there's one thing that might quiet his nightmares - getting the vaccine. Health care workers are supposed to be at the front of the line for vaccines. But when Reyes asked his nursing homes if he could get the shot, the answer was no.

REYES: Essentially, what they've told me about the vaccine is that they prefer to give it to the more permanent staff.

EMANUEL: Reyes works for a staffing agency. It's like a temp agency. He picks up shifts at four or five different facilities, working full time but moving around. Between 5% and 10% of staff in nursing homes are people like Reyes. His staffing agency says more than half of their nurses and nursing assistants in Massachusetts were told they cannot get the shot. In a lot of states, private medical practices say they are in a similar situation. Often, they are in line after hospital employees. Sometimes that means after hospital administrators and even after those working from home.

GARY MIRKIN: Very, very frustrating.

CHRISTINA LEHANE: This is demoralizing.

EMILY SWILLING: It also feels a little like we've been dismissed.

EMANUEL: That's Gary Mirkin, Christina Lehane and Emily Swilling.

Here's what's happening. The federal government is sending vaccines to each state, and then each state devises their own plan to allocate the shots, sometimes delegating to individual hospitals and boards of health. That has meant a lot of variation and sometimes a lot of confusion.

Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple interview requests. But Paul Biddinger chairs the state's vaccine advisory group. He says they are aware of the concerns and working hard to fix them, but he points out it's still just the first few weeks.

PAUL BIDDINGER: This is more complex, you know, by orders of magnitude than any normal vaccination campaign, whether it's the complexity of the product or the scale of the effort or the limited supply.

EMANUEL: And depending on where you work - say, a nursing home versus a private practice - exactly who oversees the rollout is different. Hospitals that are administering the vaccine say just figuring out which local health care providers are eligible and getting them scheduled is another big hurdle. Biddinger says none of this is easy for overstretched and sometimes under-resourced public health systems and hospitals.

BIDDINGER: There are still lots of other important priorities in addition to vaccination, such as planning for and accommodating the surge. You know, we're - the state's rolling out field hospitals. There's so much that's needed.

EMANUEL: Experts say that in the coming days and weeks, things should be sorted out for many of those in private practices. For contract or temp workers, it's a little less clear. The staffing agency where Carlos Reyes works says it's encountering problems in more than a dozen states where it operates, and there are only small moves in the right direction. Regardless, it's too late for Reyes. After a week of trying to figure out how to get a shot, he now has COVID.

REYES: It's very scary. It's - it feels unnecessary because, again, the vaccines are there. Everything could have been avoided - everything, absolutely everything.

EMANUEL: He says now he hopes his story will be a wake-up call for the nursing homes where he works and maybe for others to treat temporary health care workers the same as permanent employees.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.