Anthony clapped when he spotted his friend, Edward, leaving the Friday morning coronavirus vaccine clinic at the D.C. nonprofit So Others Might Eat, and congratulated him on overcoming weeks of uncertainty to get the shot.
“I was afraid of the aftereffects, the reaction,” said Edward, who wore a blue surgical mask and a backpack.
The men, who have been riding out the coronavirus pandemic at a homeless shelter on New York Avenue, joked that Edward wanted to know the vaccine didn’t hurt Anthony before he got it himself. (They spoke on the condition that their last names not be used as to not jeopardize future employment.)
Just like in the general population, vaccine hesitancy is one of the challenges the District’s outreach workers and homeless advocates have encountered since February when they started vaccinating people who live in shelters, in transitional housing and on the streets.
This week, Unity Health Care, in partnership with a network of organizations that serve the homeless, began offering the vaccine to unsheltered people, who they say are among the hardest to reach for medical care and services.
According to a point-in-time count last spring, there are at least 653 unsheltered people in the District — a subset of homeless who do not stay in shelters — and by Friday about 30 percent of them were vaccinated, said Laura Green Zeilinger, director of the city’s Department of Human Services.
Nurses administered the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which she said was key to protecting a vulnerable population that disproportionately suffers from underlying medical conditions that can make covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, more severe and deadly.
“The ability to have that one and done [shot]… so they are protected is absolutely much more efficient and effective because people are transient,” Green Zeilinger said.
Overall, 1,382 homeless individuals in shelters and 740 staff members have gotten at least the first in the two-shot Moderna regimen, and a total of more than 3,300 doses have been administered, she said.
Green Zeilinger spoke in front of a Unity Health mobile clinic parked outside So Others Might Eat, where people lined up in the cold Friday morning awaiting the vaccine. Miriam’s Kitchen and the Downtown Day Services Center hosted similar events Wednesday and Thursday.
Inside, nurses wearing gowns, masks and face shields jabbed needles in upper arms, while people sat quietly for observation for 15 to 30 minutes.
Glenda Robinson, 38, said she procrastinated at first because she was worried about having an allergic reaction, but an outreach worker convinced her to get the vaccine.
“It didn’t hurt because I ain’t scared of needles, so it didn’t bother me. I didn’t look at it when they give it to me,” she said.
Robinson said she has taken substance abuse and parenting classes in hopes of having her children live with her in an apartment. In the meantime, she panhandles.
“They look at me like I’m crazy or stupid,” she said. “I sleep in the woods in a tent and I be cold. Last night I was cold. My stomach was touching my back, I didn’t have anything to eat. I mean, it’s hard out here.”
The vaccination clinic is part of a response by the city’s Department of Human Services that started a little over a year ago after day centers, libraries and McDonalds locations stopped allowing people to linger. Officials extended shelter hours from overnight to around-the-clock, but that created a set of problems as well.
“When the covid pandemic struck, we in the homeless medical community were really worried about folks living in these large congregant settings,” Catherine Crosland, medical director for homeless outreach services at Unity Heath Care, said in a phone interview Thursday.