More than half of Syracuse’s homeless have been vaccinated against Covid-19. It was not easy
Syracuse, NY – When the Hire Ground van travels almost every morning with a homeless work crew, Dr David Lehmann is often at the party, carrying needles and Covid-19 vaccines.
Lehmann tried to immunize one of Syracuse’s most vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups: the chronically homeless, who don’t set foot in shelters.
“This is the population that I couldn’t get on a pop-up site,” said Lehmann, a doctor at Northern State Medical University. “We had to bring vaccines directly to the places these guys were going. “
These places were in the woods, under bridges and on the van, where the homeless will help clean up the city as day laborers.
The road to vaccinate the homeless, a group particularly at risk from Covid-19, has always been strewn with pitfalls. Mental illness among many homeless made it difficult to explain the risks and benefits and obtain consent. Conspiracy theories and vaccine fears fostered resistance. The two-shot vaccines – the first approved – were difficult to administer to a transient population.
But today, thanks to the rollout this spring of the Johnson and Johnson single-shot vaccine and a pair of doctors at Upstate Medical Center willing to administer injections in shelters or on the street, advocates estimate that more than half of hundreds of homeless people in Syracuse received vaccines.
“It got easier as we went along,” said Kristian Peterson, program manager for housing services at Catholic Charities. Peterson estimates that 60% of people who used the Catholic Charities shelter received the vaccine, thanks to Lehmann and his colleague, Dr. Sunny Asalam.
Those responsible for the rescue mission say they were able to vaccinate around 80% of staff and residents. John Tumino, who runs Hire Ground, says about a quarter of the 20 or so chronically homeless people he serves have received the vaccine.
Getting to this point has not been easy. The rescue mission and Catholic charities organized clinics and tried to persuade homeless people in shelters to get vaccinated. Even when the single injection vaccine was finally available, it proved difficult to get them to take up arms.
About two-thirds of the homeless in the rescue mission suffer from some form of mental illness, said Victoria Shires, development manager.
“Does the person have the capacity to consent to a vaccine? Shires said. “If you are talking about someone with a serious mental illness, they might not be able to consent to this.”
Like the general population, many homeless people did not want or trust the shots.
“This community is like any other,” Tumino said. “There are people who resist (to the vaccine) or they fear it is too new and they don’t want to take the risk. “
Tumino and Lehmann tried to persuade the skeptics. Some of these conversations made my head tremble.
“One day we were working with a couple of intravenous drug addicts,” Tumino recalls. “I talked about the vaccine and they said it was too new. You watch someone shoot heroin and live under a bridge, but they’re scared of getting the shot.
Workers on the rescue mission tried to allay that fear, Peterson said, debunking myths and conspiracy theories and trying to make people at the shelter more comfortable with the vaccine.
“Staff started getting vaccinated, their friends would be vaccinated, their current roommate was vaccinated,” she said. “It allayed some of the anxieties. “
Lehmann has been able to win some converts to the vaccine because he has become a trusted face for many homeless people. Three years ago, he started “House Calls for the Homeless,” bringing a medical kit to patients on the streets to treat illnesses and monitor chronic illnesses.
“We go to camps and cross town to find people living under bridges, in the woods, people begging on street corners,” Tumino said. “We try to keep people from going to the emergency room and get them to see a doctor. “
The Hire Ground van takes to the streets most days of the week, offering homeless people $ 50 to do daytime chores like picking up trash. While they are in the van, they are offered a vaccine. Many take it.
The campaign to immunize the homeless is not over, but it may take some creativity to eliminate pockets of resistance.
“We’re thinking about ways to entice someone who might be reluctant to get it,” Tumino said. “What carrot can we offer them for them to take?” We don’t know what it is yet.
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