METHUEN — When a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available in the coming weeks or months, the staff and residents of one local retirement home will be in front of the line, arms out, ready for the injection.

The Woods at Merrimack Retirement Community, located at 197 Howe St., right across from the Merrimack Valley Golf Club, has signed onto a program put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to offer the vaccine free of charge once it has been deemed safe and legal for public consumption.

At least two pharmaceutical companies — including Pfizer, which has a vaccine manufacturing plant in Andover — have announced recently that they are very close to being able to introduce a vaccine to the public.

When the owners of Woods at Merrimack — Oregon-based Sunshine Retirement Living — learned of the partnership, their CEO jumped at the opportunity, signing up all 34 of its facilities across the nation.

“Being among the first senior living companies to participate in this program provides us with anticipated early access to COVID-19 vaccinations and at no cost to our residents," said Luis Serrano, CEO of Sunshine Retirement. "Based on our partnership with CVS to provide flu vaccination clinics at our communities across the country, we know we are working with a credible and reliable provider to safely administer this program.”

Under the program, dubbed the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care, CVS would not only bring the vaccine to the Howe Street home, but all the supplies and trained staff needed to administer the vaccine, said Richard Govoni, executive director of the facility.

"We are going to offer it to all staff and residents to make sure we do what we can to protect seniors and caregivers," said Govoni, who has been with Woods at Merrimack since it opened in January.

He said the 50 residents of the home are thrilled about the possibility of getting vaccinated, as they are mostly in their 80s and 90s and are considered high-risk.

"We've got a lot of excited people," he said. "There are always a few who are worried about vaccinations. But just the fact they are part of a community offering it, most residents say, 'Put me in line.' They are anxious to be a part of that."

The retirement home has been lucky so far, Govoni said, because the community of residents and staff hasn't recorded one positive case of COVID-19 since it opened on Feb. 25 of this year.

"We've had a great run — knock on wood," he said. "It's getting scary in the community."

Data just released by the state Department of Public Health shows Lawrence and Methuen are both in the "red" categories for cities and towns, meaning they have among the highest rates of COVID infection in the state.

But so far, that has not translated to problems at Merrimack Woods, he said, noting that the retirement home is different than nursing homes or assisted living facilities because it offers independent living with residents in their own apartments. There are no medical personnel on the premises and most residents lead very active lives, he said.

In any case, the residents are happy about the possibility of getting a vaccine.

"People are ready for some good news," Govoni said. "We will be starting the new year with a breath of fresh air, and we might be able to go and see our families, not wear masks, or give people a hug."



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