How Santa Clara County is vaccinating homeless people
Guadalupe River Park resident Tony McCann walks along a pathway Thursday after his feeling minor side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Vicente Vera.

A group of outreach workers roamed Guadalupe River Park this month, looking to give the park’s houseless residents food, clothing – and COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Along a narrow trail, they found Tony McCann, who lives in the park in a community stashed amongst the trees and surrounding tanbark.

He received the vaccine last week at a mobile clinic on the outskirts of the park and said he was thankful to be immunized from the virus, which caused the deaths of almost 1,900 people in Santa Clara County.

“They brought in the Johnson & Johnson version of the vaccine, so it was a one-shot deal,” McCann said.

While comparing his enthusiasm for the COVID-19 vaccine to the polio vaccine that pricked his arm almost 60 years ago—he said he also understood the skepticism some of his neighbors have around the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness.

“I can’t tell you my opinion on who’s wrong and who’s right, all I know is I did not get polio since I was vaccinated with the shot when I was a kid,” McCann said.

The outreach workers were with the Santa Clara Valley Homeless Healthcare Program.

The program took the lead in developing plans to vaccinate unhoused people in Santa Clara County. It is responsible for reaching both people living outside and those living in temporary shelters.

San Jose Councilmember David Cohen, an early advocate for vaccinations at encampment sites, said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was the ideal option.

“Timing that right and finding the same people at the right interval (for second doses) would be difficult,” he said. “We have people who are doing great work in those communities.”

Santa Clara Valley Homeless Healthcare Program outreach workers and medical personnel made efforts to vaccinate Columbus Park residents on March 15. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Before their efforts among Guadalupe River and Columbus parks residents launched last week, county outreach workers immunized about 120 unhoused people in February who were older than 65 and living in shelters.

A Santa Clara County spokesperson said they sought guidance from the California Department of Public Health to see if residents and staff at large shelters and encampment sites were eligible for vaccines under the current phase of the state’s vaccination plans.

They received no response. So, the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program moved forward with its plan on March 1.

‘What if people die?’

The news that vaccines were coming brought hope to HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton, who said she’s been anxiously pondering the havoc COVID-19 could wreak.

“When I checked in with myself one morning in meditation I realized I was carrying all this anxiety around, ‘What if people died?’” she said.

Urton’s concerns are lighter now that almost all of the residents and staff at the Boccardo Reception Center, the makeshift South Hall shelter and Gilroy Winter Shelter were vaccinated. She said it took about a day.

“They showed up one day and said, ‘We’re here to vaccinate people,’ and we were very excited,” she said.

Everyone at CityTeam’s transitional housing programs got identical service on March 11, said San Jose operation’s manager James Alvarado.

“It was very, very quick,” he said. “Everybody was pretty excited when they heard it was going to be Johnson & Johnson. It eliminates having to get that second appointment.”

Alvarado said having those vaccinations is important, given that his clients have not been able to visit with family in-person since the pandemic hit.

Uneven reception

The Valley Homeless Healthcare Program also immunized residents of Roosevelt Park, though most turned down the opportunity and only a handful received the vaccine, said park resident Benny Molina.

“(COVID-19)’s been around for more than a year now, almost all of us got it once and we’re cool,” he said. “Our immune system already knows COVID-19 now, we don’t need the shot.”

Many other residents at Roosevelt Park shared in Molina’s sentiments, saying they did not trust the vaccine would actually contain the COVID-19 immunization.

Some homeless residents, including Monica Soto, who lives at Columbus Park, turned down a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Living in a trailer at Columbus Park, Monica Soto said she was not present for the mobile vaccine clinic—but wouldn’t have gotten one anyway.

“I got COVID in January and I’m fine now,” Soto said. “If God wanted to take me off this Earth he would have already.”

Urton said some homeless people at her shelters also did not want the COVID-19 vaccine – but she understood those who were distrustful of the medical system.

“Especially people of color who referenced the Tuskegee experiment,” Urton said, citing a now-infamous U.S. Public Health Service study in which hundreds of Black Americans were purposefully not treated for syphilis to examine the virus’ effects.

“And they have every right to be distrustful,” she said. “We need to earn their trust back as a medical system and as a society.”

More outreach

By March 16, the county program administered 736 doses to homeless residents and staff, officials said.

Homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright said she’d like to assist in vaccine outreach efforts given the trust she has built with communities around the county.

“Hearing that they’re going out to camps is great,” she said. “When we go to the camps, we are more than happy to put out the flyers, attach them to poles, tents and remind people of the vaccination date and site and make sure they go out there.”

Vaccine administrators with the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program visited four encampment sites since March 15, though a Santa Clara County spokesperson said the locations cannot be disclosed to protect the privacy of encampment residents.

Receiving his vaccine at Guadalupe River Park early in the morning, McCann said he began feeling side effects in the afternoon – describing them as a fever with intense fatigue.

“I stayed in my tent until my symptoms dissipated. The next day I went out and was my old self,” he said. “I’m fine now.”

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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