After the vaccine, Berlin care home residents hope for visitors and good health

Margit Hechler, an inhabitant of a Berlin nursing home in which residents speak about their experience dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown, death and vaccination, sits on her bed, in Berlin, Germany July 11, 2020. REUTERS/Alessia Cocca

BERLIN (Reuters) - Like most residents at her care home in Berlin, 43-year-old Kristina Lang agreed to receive the coronavirus vaccine when her turn came, but not without trepidation.

"They only said 'It's a vaccine and nothing will happen', but on TV, people were warned against the side-effects," said Lang, who uses a wheelchair.

She is one of 102 residents at the home. Some have dementia, while others suffer from psychiatric disorders which mean they cannot live independently.

At one point a woman Lang shared a room with tested positive for coronavirus, but she escaped infection. Lang says she feels safer now the she has been vaccinated.

The care home manager, who declined to be named, said the mood among residents has improved since the new year.

"The most difficult time was at the beginning of December when we had a corona outbreak in the house that affected several residents and employees," he said.

He declined to say if there had been any deaths caused by coronavirus at the home, but as elsewhere in Germany, Berlin's nursing home population has been hard hit by the virus.

Of the 1,860 COVID-19 deaths in Berlin, around 60 percent can be traced back to outbreaks in care homes, according to the city's health authority.

The sector remains a major challenge across Germany, and governments have made nursing home populations the priority in their inoculation programmes.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing a very high number of outbreaks in nursing homes. We currently know of 900 outbreaks (in Germany)," Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said on Friday.

Out of more than 1.3 million people vaccinated so far in Germany, a third live in nursing homes, according to the RKI.

Nonetheless it will be some time before the vaccine will allow normal visitor routines to resume. Heike Felber, 57, broke into tears when asked how many visitors she had received since moving into the home in April.

"It's a difficult question," Felber said, looking forlorn as she sat on her bed at the home. Felber refused the vaccine. The manager said her children do not visit often, but that she received a present from her daughter and two letters from friends on her birthday last week.

"I didn't get visits even before (coronavirus)," Lang said drily when asked the same.

The Berlin health authorities said on Friday that around 96% of nursing homes residents had received a first coronavirus shot, and around 28% the second vaccination.

Around 75% of the home's residents accepted the vaccine, the manager said. Those who refused did so either because they were were afraid of possible side-effects or because they did not have the mental capacity to understand what it was, he said.

Margit Hechler, 64, has lived at the home for 16 years and said she was very young when she first began hearing voices after her father left. She plays piano, paints, sews her own clothes and makes bracelets and necklaces. The walls of her brightly decorated room are lined with her paintings.

Hechler received the vaccine, and apart from a brief wave of weakness, said she had no side-effects.

The virus doesn't scare her, she said, although she hopes for good health in the coming year. "This is my biggest wish ... because I have great pain and fears."

(Reporting by Alessia Cocca and Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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