More than 2,200 homeless Chicagoans in shelters receive COVID-19 vaccine: ‘I was happy we were able to get it here’

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Laura Rodríguez Presa, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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Nearly a year ago, Constance Foster, 58, felt distressed and worried after testing positive for COVID-19 while living at a Chicago homeless shelter.

“Thankfully,” she said, she was quickly transferred to a hotel downtown to quarantine until she recovered.

Though she said she felt comfortable at the shelter when she returned because of precautions put in place to protect its residents, she has still feared contracting the virus again.

So when Foster and her homeless neighbors at the Pacific Garden Mission received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, she finally felt more at peace, she said.

In recent weeks, more than 2,200 initial doses of vaccine against the coronavirus have been administered to shelter staff and homeless people across Chicago as part of a collaboration between the city Department of Public Health and community health providers that serve the homeless population.

Prioritizing homeless Chicagoans in shelters to receive the COVID-19 vaccine is essential to reduce the overall transmission of the virus in the city because of how many people living in homeless shelters have health conditions that can make the coronavirus more serious.

It is also a way to ensure those most vulnerable are protected against the virus as the city works toward an equitable distribution of the vaccine, said Megan Cunningham, a deputy city health commissioner.

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that working with the city’s Family and Support Services Department and with shelters and community health groups has been key to finding the right approach and creating strategy to ensure vaccines get distributed as quickly as possible in the homeless community and help people overcome hesitancy at getting the vaccine.

The city began administering COVID-19 vaccine shots to those working and living in homeless shelters the last week of January as part of its phase 1b rollout plan. The work begin with daylong vaccination clinics at shelters across the city. According to city data, there are approximately 5,000 people in homeless shelters and living on the streets in Chicago.

Tuesday afternoon, Foster and other residents at Pacific Garden Mission, 1458 S. Canal St., were set to get their second dose of the vaccine.

While other large cities are “just beginning outreach, we have been connecting trusted health care partners with dozens of shelters and vaccinating our most vulnerable neighbors at increasingly effective rates,” said Mary Tornabene, of Heartland Alliance Health.

Along with Heartland Alliance Health, Lawndale Christian Health Center also has been a leading health provider collaborating with city agencies and shelters since the beginning of the pandemic.

Tornabene believes that the city’s response has been effective in helping to control COVID-19 1/4 u2032s spread in homeless shelters and now is helping with distribution of the vaccine.

According to city data, to date, there have been 626 known cases of the coronavirus and three deaths of homeless Chicagoans, including both those in and outside shelters. The majority occurred in the early months of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen significant reductions in the spread of COVID-19 within shelters since our testing, isolation and infection prevention measures have been fully in place,” said Alyse Kittner, a program manager for the city health department.

As part of its response, the city created shelter-based service teams to provide on-site health care in every city homeless shelter, which in addition to infection control for COVID-19 also provide on-site behavioral health and primary care to shelter residents.

The health department also funded mobile testing teams from Rush University Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago that visit any shelter or homeless encampment with a case of COVID-19 to offer testing to all staff and residents in each affected shelter.

And the city’s Family and Support Services Department worked with All Chicago and the Chicago Continuum of Care, two groups that provide funding to end and prevent homelessness, to place shelter residents considered at high risk for COVID-19 complications because of older age or poorer health in separate hotel rooms as a safety precaution and then linked to permanent housing.

Homeless Chicagoans have been a priority for the city since the pandemic broke out, Arwady said, and she hopes the partnerships targeting the well-being of these residents can outlast the pandemic.

Foster said she is grateful for the care she’s received at Pacific Garden Mission, which has been her home for almost two years.

“We’ve felt safe here because we’ve been doing the social distancing and wearing the masks,” she said.

Although she said she never doubted she would get vaccinated because she has diabetes and high blood pressure, some people she knows are choosing not to get the vaccine.

“I was very happy when I learned of the vaccines, but still concerned because it was new,” she said. “But I was happy we were able to get it here because I feel protected.”

Cunningham said that despite the hesitancy among some homeless people, most have been responsive and may only need time to learn more about the vaccine before agreeing to be inoculated.

Mass vaccination events are important because other homeless people may begin to feel more comfortable after they see others getting the vaccine, she said.

Arwady said people in shelters or unsheltered homeless people living in the streets can request the shot at a shelter or through the city’s community health partners at any time.

The shots will be administered to anyone 18 years old or older, and no one is being turned away from shelters if they choose not to get the vaccine, said Cunningham.

While attending to those in shelters was a priority, making the vaccine available to homeless people living in encampments, under bridges and other areas is next, Cunningham added.

A mobile team has been working with outreach workers to identify locations where they can offer the vaccine to people living in the streets and ensure they get both doses, she said.

“We want to bring the vaccine to where people are,” Cunningham said.

larodriguez@chicagotribune.com