Bringing COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness

By Ken Anderson and Ben Stocking

As Public Health – Seattle & King County strives to get vaccines to everyone in King County, we are making a special effort to reach people living unhoused. 

Mobile vaccination teams are holding clinics at homeless shelters and encampments across the county.  They have visited more than 170 sites and vaccinated more than 2600 people since the beginning of April. 

The county’s vaccination outreach strategy aims to bring vaccines to places where people living unhoused turn for support, said Jody Rauch, a nurse who coordinates the county’s outreach to people experiencing homelessness. 

Delores Mack, a nurse with Public Health – Seattle & King County: “Our homeless population really deserves care.” (PHSKC/Ben Stocking)

“Mobile vaccine teams literally meet people where they are – at shelters, encampments or food programs,” she said. “This decreases the chance that someone will have to choose between getting a vaccine or meeting another need, like eating a meal or meeting with a case manager.” 

When they receive the vaccine, people attending the clinics can also get information about other support programs that help people get medical care, food, and clothing. 

Meeting people where they are 

In a small lobby with a large crucifix hanging on the wall, a county team recently set up tables at the St. Martin de Porres shelter, which provides beds for 51 people in a building near Seattle’s downtown ferry terminal. Seven men lined up for their first dose of the Moderna vaccine.  

Delores Mack, a nurse with Public Health – Seattle & King County, registered visitors on her laptop and welcomed them to the clinic. “Our homeless population really deserves care,” she said. “And if your patients can’t get to you, you need to get to them.” 

A resident was greeted by a mobile team member, who answered their questions as they awaited their turn.

The mobile teams are staffed by Public Health, Harborview Medical Center, the Seattle Fire Department, and Medical Teams International. 

They have identified more than 400 sites across the county where they could target services to people living unhoused.  (Homeless service providers and other community organizations interested in hosting a vaccination event can find more information at this link.)  

Overcoming challenges to access 

When Public Health began its vaccination campaign in February, it opened high-volume sites intended to deliver vaccines as quickly as possible to as many people as possible.  

But those clinics cannot reach everyone, especially people with disabilities, who lack access to transportation, or face challenges accessing the internet to book appointments.  

In response, the county has coordinated a group of mobile vaccination teams that have worked to reach people living in congregate settings and residents who are unable to leave their homes without assistance. The mobile teams increasingly serve smaller neighborhood clinics aimed at communities that have higher levels of infection or face barriers in access to vaccine. 

“Reaching people living unhoused is a core priority for the mobile teams,” said Deborah Schweikert, who manages the teams for Public Health. 

People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious disease. Many have underlying health conditions, lack access to care or live in group settings such as shelters or encampments. 

During the pandemic, the county has stepped up efforts to reduce crowding in shelters and provided homeless service sites with priority access to protective equipment and sanitation supplies. It has also conducted more than 3,000 COVID-19 tests for people experiencing homelessness. 

A high percentage of people living unhoused have disabilities or have experienced trauma. The mobile vaccine teams are staffed with people who are sensitive to their needs. 

“They treated all our clients with kindness and respect,” said Joy Estill, who works at the St. Martin shelter. “They were very sensitive to what was happening around them and in tune with our clients’ sensitivities. I was so grateful for that.” 

Originally published 5/27/2021