At least 80% of the residents and workers of elderly homes have already received the first injection of the COVID-19 vaccine in Spain; It is the beginning of the end of a tragic year for residences in which more than 26,000 people have lost their lives. But there are fears that the vaccine shortage will put the second puncture to reach immunity at risk.
If walls and the space between floor tiles could store sounds like the grooves on a record, they would reproduce the loud, throbbing stridor of lungs struggling to breathe. A sound that resounded amid the silence of that morning of March 18 last year when the coronavirus first infiltrated the San Camilo nursing home in Madrid.
“They called from the fourth floor because a woman got sick … The stridor was so loud that it could be heard from outside. We were starting to put a track on it when I got a call from the third floor. Then another on the fourth floor. I felt anguish …. I thought: God, this is going so fast … ”, remembers Lourdes Iglesias, doctor at the San Camilo residence.
Then the madness broke out. Residents stayed in their rooms as long as possible. Daily activity in the nursing home was completely disrupted. The assembly hall that used to host plays was turned into a COVID-19 room where residents fought for their lives, treated by staff in full protective gear.
“There were two exits here. The gymnasium -converted into a recovery and rehabilitation room- or the chapel, where family members had the opportunity to share a farewell with their loved ones ”, explains a San Camilo worker.
The benches in the oratory were replaced by the beds of those who were in their last hours so that they could spend time with their families, even if they had to wear individual protective suits. “In hospitals they died alone, here they have always died accompanied. And that is a big difference ”, assures Lourdes Iglesias.
As a result of the first wave, 30 residents lost their lives and half of the staff became infected with COVID-19. As Pablo Sastre, head of the palliative care unit, would later recall, “we didn’t even have time to think if we were sick”.
Up to 26,500 people have died from the new coronavirus in Spanish residences. That is almost half of the total deaths in the country. In Madrid alone, thousands of patients were denied a transfer to hospitals and care units. The center, managed by the religious order of San Camilo, was fortunate to have a complete medical staff and a palliative care unit to give its residents a dignified death.
A gift from heaven in the middle of the snow storm Filomena
The first doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine arrived on Tuesday, January 12, just after the historic storm Filomena will bury Madrid under half a meter of snow. “It was a gift. It fell from the sky like snow. I say it was a gift from San Camilo. The vials arrived, but the vaccination team couldn’t do it because of the snow. Fortunately, we knew how to do it.”
Together with Lourdes, the head nurse Laura Steegmann vaccinated 280 people the next day; all residents and most of the residence staff. Now they demand that the health authorities allow them to apply the second prick themselves, so that they can finish the process as soon as the new doses are available.
Laura remembers the moment when she held the syringe for the first time in her hand. “It was a feeling of hope. Thinking that it could all end. That we will no longer have to live with permanent anxiety. “
The empty jars sit on a table, as if they are still too valuable to dispose of. In the midst of the third wave of coronavirus that is flooding Spanish hospitals with patients, the main concern of the residence staff is now to keep the center free of COVID and protect the residents until they receive the second puncture that grants them immunity.
“I do not feel comfortable at all with external visits – admits Dr. Iglesias – I was in favor of closing the residence until we received the second dose, but the regional government opposed it. We have reduced family visits to once a week ”.
But the shortage of the vaccine could compromise the administration of the second injection. Pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca have announced a reduction in shipments of vials to EU countries, and several regional governments in Spain have already stopped new vaccinations to ensure that those who received the first doses can access a second.
“We hope to receive new vials in three or four weeks.” Even if you exceed the prescribed 21 days between doses, they are confident that you will not compromise the efficacy of the vaccine.
A small truce amid the pandemic
In the dining room, the residents of San Camilo spend some free time before lunch. Juan Luis Guerra’s ‘Bubbles of love’ sounds on the public address system. They dance with the staff and move their feet to the music, enjoying a brief truce with the virus.
Nuria Gimeno Rubio, 82, is anxious to receive the second puncture so she can see her children again. “I really want to kiss and hug them,” explains Gimeno.
The vaccine brings a “sign of hope”, but even after achieving immunity against COVID19, residents and workers of Spanish residences will have to face the trauma of a year of death and loneliness.
But wound closure will not come in a syringe.
“We will have to recover by rebuilding the broken tissues. This has made us more fragile. Some of the residents are very sad, no matter how hard the workers try to do their best. , concludes José Carlos Bermejo, director of the San Camilo Residence. “Many of them now have very few meaningful personal relationships. So we have a long, hard job ahead of us.”