Vaccinating An Often Overlooked Population — Homeless Marylanders
Sixty-eight-year-old Melvin King was visibly elated. As the sticker on his chest declared, he had just received his COVID-19 vaccine.
“My second one, as a matter of fact,” he said. “I've been looking forward to it, you know, and I think, you know, that this is very important to everyone, not just to myself.”
King’s primary care doctor here, at Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore, called him to make the appointment.
King said he lives with his 85-year-old mother, who has dementia, in an apartment in East Baltimore.
“She hasn’t had a shot yet because of her not having a computer — access to a computer — or transportation,” King said.
After he got his shot, the staff at Healthcare for the Homeless gave him a phone number he can call to make an appointment for his mother. When he spoke with WYPR, he was still gripping a slip of paper with the number on it, and even through his mask, his excitement was visible.
As Maryland continues its efforts to vaccinate residents against COVID-19, one of the most vulnerable groups clamoring for protection from the virus is residents who experience some form of homelessness or housing insecurity.
“Homelessness itself was already a public health emergency,” said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless, which treats about 10,000 clients in a non-pandemic year. “The people that we were working with and are working with — disproportionately Black and brown — were already dying from hypertension and diabetes, already suffering high rates of mental health and addiction.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made the organization's work both more difficult and more urgent.
“Homeless folks were far more likely to acquire the virus, suffer health consequences because of it, and because they live their private lives in very public spaces or might live in congregate facilities, could very easily spread it to others,” Lindamood said. “So we had to slow the spread.”
Testing data confirms those concerns.
The organization has conducted roughly 2,000 COVID-19 tests of roughly 1,500 people in the last year, according to Lindamood. The average positivity rate is 17%. Some weeks, more than half of the tests come back positive.
That makes it ever more important that Healthcare for the Homeless vaccinate as many of its clients as possible as quickly as possible.
Lindamood said the organization can administer 200 doses a week.
“That’s about 40 shots a day, a combination of first and second,” Lindamood said. “In addition, we're getting out into the community to shelters, other congregate facilities, to vaccinate people.”
On Friday, Lindamood showed acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader around the facility.
During the tour, he told Schrader they could use more of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“At a shelter, we don’t know if someone’s going to come back, especially some of the emergency shelters,” he said. “Our thinking is if we can shift over to J&J eventually, we can double our impact.”
After the tour, Schrader told WYPR that homeless shelters sound like a good “use-case” for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson regimen, but he stopped short of a commitment.
“We have a weekly process,” he said. “We'll take this input, we'll put it into the process and, you know, see what the outcome is.”
To help people like King and his mother who don’t have regular internet access, Schrader highlighted the state’s new hotline, which is designed to help people get appointments — 855-MD-GO-VAX.
He also said organizations like Healthcare for the Homeless are a key part of the state’s decentralized, “hybrid” vaccination rollout.
“The local trusted organizations that have the list of people, they're doing the calling and using their systems,” Schrader said. “Rather than putting it in this huge bureaucracy, they're directing it, and they're getting much [lower] no-show rates because they know who they're calling.”