Updated at 7 p.m. with comment from Harmony
Several local assisted living and senior centers are advertising vaccinations if seniors make reservations for residencies, a marketing tactic that is raising concern among county and elected officials.
Reston Now has found at least three businesses have advertised either through social media or on their website that if an individual pays to become a resident of the assisted living or senior center by a certain date, they’d receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
This comes as regional localities continue to have immense challenges with distributing COVID-19 vaccines to all who are eligible. In Fairfax County, everyone 65 or older is currently eligible to sign up for the vaccine. The vaccine is also free to all.
Notably, up until late last week, Tall Oaks Assisted Living in Reston ran a Facebook aid promoting a “vaccination staycation,” as reported by the Washington Post.
The local assisted living facility was advertising a $5,000 all-inclusive month-long stay in a studio apartment where residents would also receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It was accompanied by a 30-second video and a photo of a senior receiving a shot in the arm.
That post was taken down on Friday, according to the Post.
However, Tall Oaks Assisted Living isn’t the only local business that has advertised this type of message.
On Jan.13, Harmony in Chantilly promoted on their Facebook page “priority vaccine access” to those who become residents prior to Feb. 9.
Sunrise Senior Living at Reston Town Center also posted on their website’s landing page that “vaccine clinics are now available” and new “eligible” residents can learn more by calling the facility. Towards the bottom of the page, however, it explains that “no respite or short-term stays” are eligible to get the vaccine.
Fairfax County officials are worried about what these messages are promoting.
“The main concern is the promotion could be interpreted as needing to pay money to get the vaccine, which is not the case,” Jeremy Lasich, Fairfax County Health Department spokesperson, writes to Reston Now in an email.
Lasich notes that long-term care facilities, like those mentioned, are receiving their vaccine allotment directly from the federal government and not the county. He says Fairfax County has allocated roughly half of the weekly doses to people 65 and over, per Virginia guidelines.
While Lasich does understand the frustration since it could be weeks or even months to get a vaccine appointment, he emphasizes that those 75 and over were able to sign up a week earlier than those over 65. Meaning, those residents’ appointments should come sooner.
The advertisements do “raise some concerns as both a promotional strategy and from a safety perspective,” Lasich writes.
Ken Plum is the Virginia House Delegate for the 36th District. Both Tall Oaks and Sunrise at Reston Town Center lie in his district. He also shares considerable concern about these promotions.
“It sends the message that you can get in front of the line for the vaccine by paying for an expensive [residency] package,” Plum tells Reston Now.
There’s already a high level of anxiety and frustration with how the vaccine is being distributed, he says, and this type of advertisements are playing off of those fears, particularly aimed at seniors and their loved ones.
“It’s misleading and inappropriate,” says Plum.
Reston Now has reached out to the three assisted living and senior centers noted asking about the decision-making process behind the promotions and advertisements.
Tall Oaks Assisted Living responded to a request for comment from Reston Now.
Executive Director George Winters admitted that promoting in such a way could be seen as “insensitive.”
“At Tall Oaks, we believe in the many positive benefits of short-term respite care for both seniors and their families. Moreover, we are delighted to be able to do our part to help seniors within our communities get vaccinated and to protect their health as well as that of their families via our vaccination clinic,” Winters writes to Reston Now. “At the same time, we recognize that demand for the vaccine is considerable and that marketing our respite-care program as we did may have been seen as insensitive to the individuals awaiting their vaccines. We are grateful to our residents, our staff, and our neighbors for their understanding.”
It remains unclear how effective the promotions and advertising were in bringing in new residents.
Winters told the Washington Post that only one person responded to the ad prior to it being taken down on Feb. 5. That person had previously taken her mother out of the Reston facility last year due to fears about the pandemic.
Reston Now has followed up with Winters if it remains the case that only one person has responded to the ad, but has not received a response.
Harmony in Chantilly, in an email response to Reston Now, said that their residents were first vaccinated in late Jan. and were among the first to receive vaccinations in Virginia.
This statement is disputed since more than 10,000 Fairfax County residents received the vaccine weeks earlier. The assisted living center says they have follow-up vaccine clinics set-up for residents later this month and in March.
They declined to comment specifically on county officials’ concern over the appropriateness or potential misleading nature of the Facebook post