It’s been months since Diane Finch, a resident at Cantata Adult Life Services in Brookfield for the past four years, has been able to see her children in person. So, it perhaps was no surprise that Finch was one of the first Cantata residents waiting in line Saturday morning to receive her vaccination against COVID-19.

“I definitely don’t want to get the COVID,” she said shortly after getting her shot on Jan. 2.

The occasion so was momentous that staff applauded as the first handful of residents, pushed in wheelchairs by caregivers or aided by walkers, lined up outside a room in The Woodlands assisted-living facility at Cantata where the vaccines were administered.

“I’ve never been so excited to get a shot in my life,” said Kevin Heraty, director of development at Cantata, who would be one of about 240 people, both residents and staff, being vaccinated by health care workers from CVS on Jan. 2. 

“What we’re looking at is hopefully the first step in regaining normality in our living standards for residents and employees,” Heraty added. “It’s going to take some months, but this is the first step.”

Heraty wasn’t the only one at Cantata anxious to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 2 – the second doses will be administered Jan. 23 – only two Cantata residents refused the vaccine, he said.

“We’ll still be doing infection-control procedures for a long time, but we’ll have a protected campus in house,” said Heraty, who hoped that residents might also be able to resume more group activities, including dining together to provide a better quality of life and making sure residents feel less isolated. 

“I’m hoping that by springtime residents might be able to have visitors – not just outside, but inside, too,” Heraty said.

Cantata, which offers independent and assisted living for seniors as well as skilled nursing care, has been under some form of lockdown since the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the area in March 2020.

The early strict lockdown was successful and coupled with a weekly testing program rolled out in early summer, Cantata was able to loosen its restrictions throughout the summer and into early autumn.

“We didn’t have any residents or employees test positive all summer,” said Heraty. “Only in late October did we see some employees test positive, and then it became quite dramatic, quite quickly.”

Just six residents tested positive during the second surge, seen throughout the nation, in October and November, and all have recovered, according to Heraty. Meanwhile, according to Cantata’s online COVID status dashboard, 34 staff members have tested positive, although just one remained positive as of Dec. 29.

The second wave of cases this fall led to Cantata beginning twice-weekly testing, including an increase in the number of rapid tests, which initially were not given routinely due to short supplies.

“We just got a new shipment of rapid tests recently, so now we’re starting rapid tests for everyone,” Heraty said, adding that staff will take one rapid and one PCR test (which take longer to get results, but which are more accurate) weekly, for now.

Monoclonal antibody therapy available

Meanwhile, any resident who may become infected with COVID-19 and who exhibits mild to moderate symptoms now has access to the monoclonal antibody treatment that has been cleared for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The emergency use order was issued Nov. 9 and while it initially was offered to hospitals, the treatment began being offered more widely in December. It was then that Dr. Dheeraj Mahajan, Cantata’s medical director, reached out to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to inquire about the Brookfield facility joining that program.

“We were one of the first facilities to receive the medication,” said Mahajan.

While staff at Cantata have not had cause to use the therapy yet, Mahajan said that he has seen “extensive success” using the treatment at another facility in Cook County that uses his company CIMPAR as its medical partner.

“For me it’s day and night,” said Mahajan. “In every one of those cases, lives were saved.”

The therapy can be particularly effective in a nursing home setting, said Mahajan, because cases can be caught quickly, which is essential for use of monoclonal antibody treatment.

The drug Bamlanivimab is administered intravenously, and patients must be monitored throughout the hour-plus period. Afterwards, patients must be monitored for another hour or so in case of adverse reactions.

Due to that kind of one-to-one attention, many hospitals shied away from accepting the drug, since they couldn’t spare the staff, making hundreds of thousands of doses available to other facilities, like nursing homes.

Although the treatment is considered experimental, since it hasn’t been fully approved by the FDA, Mahajan said the data he’s seen supports the conclusion that the monoclonal antibody treatment is effective.

“For a lot of clinicians, we look at the data that’s out there, and in my experience that data is good enough to use,” Mahajan said.