116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Local agencies are working to ensure all parts of the population have equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine, including those who rely on homeless shelters and other similar services.
Local public health officials have partnered with health care providers, not-for-profit agencies and community organizations in an effort to offer and administer the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable populations. That can include anyone who faces barriers to getting a shot — such as those who speak a different language as well as those who don’t have access to technology or lack transportation.
That effort also includes outreach to individuals who are experiencing homelessness — who are among some of the more vulnerable parts of the population facing a number of obstacles in obtaining a shot.
“We want the community to come out of this pandemic, and to do that we need to vaccinate as many people as possible,” said Melissa Cullum, director of community benefit at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids.
Officials in Linn and Johnson counties say they are working to direct the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson to this population, noting the one-shot dose is ideal for groups that find it challenging to make their way to two appointments.
That effort will start to reach these individuals for the first time this week in Cedar Rapids. The five homeless shelters in town are partnering with Mercy Medical Center to offer two vaccine clinics for individuals living in congregate homeless settings.
Agencies have been signing up their clients for an appointment at the clinics, which will take place on Thursday, April 15, at the hospital and on April 20 at the overflow shelter in Cedar Rapids.
Officials plan to administer 200 doses between the two clinics, Cullum said.
“As a community provider of the vaccine, we want to get to as many people as possible vaccinated and we want to make it equitable to those who may not have as easy access to the vaccine,” Cullum said.
Shelter House in Iowa City has hosted a handful of vaccine clinics so far in Johnson and Washington counties, reaching nearly 80 people who are experiencing homelessness with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Christine Ralston, director of development.
The organization also has hosted three previous vaccine clinics with the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech shot, reaching 37 staff and residents at the Shelter House’s long-term facilities.
The plan is to continue hosting COVID-19 vaccine clinics in the coming weeks, Ralston said
Those who are experiencing homelessness are often the most vulnerable populations in a community, and not just because of the lack of stable housing. Not only does living in congregate settings increase the risk for virus exposure, but this group often struggles with long-term health conditions, making individuals vulnerable to severe outcomes from COVID-19, said Alicia Faust, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids.
“A lot of our clients we serve don’t have access to preventive health care,” she said.
In addition, Faust said a disproportionate number of residents facing housing challenges are Black — a population that has been drastically impacted throughout the pandemic in both health and economics.
Faust also noted local homeless populations have faced major challenges over the past year as meal sites and other public locations they relied on have closed in the midst of the pandemic lockdown.
Willis Dady and other homeless shelters are reaching their clients through “boots on the ground” outreach, Faust said. Case managers discuss the COVID-19 shot individually with clients, encouraging them to get the vaccine and helping those who need assistance to find and get to an appointment.
Shelter House case managers are conducting similar outreach efforts with their clients. Ralston said they’re encouraging them to get the shot, but they always want their clients to feel it's a decision in their own hands.
“Once they heard from the mouth of those they trust, we had a much higher acceptance rate than we expected,” Ralston said.
In addition, Shelter House has opted to set up clinics within its facilities, enabling it take the vaccine directly to the individuals.
But officials in Linn and Johnson counties say they know these clinics and outreach efforts may not reach everyone. Even with eligibility open to all Iowans, officials say they are still working to understand who could be left behind in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
It can be difficult to track their clients and others who may benefit from their overnight or emergency shelters, especially if the individuals continue to live outside.
“We are worried about reaching everyone, absolutely,” Faust said. “We recognize some could be slipping through the cracks if they’re not reaching out for shelter.”
Linn County agencies are working with other organizations locally to ensure the safety net is wide enough to catch everyone. As part of the effort to reach populations with housing barriers, Faust said local homeless shelters are working with the Abbe Mental Health Center to make sure all clients have the option to get the shot.
Cullum said providers will likely learn a lot from the upcoming clinics through client feedback or from feedback from the shelters and its staff.
“They may have suggestions for how to do something differently going forward,” she said.
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