Sandoval: Vaccine outreach to the unhoused population
PATH workers Maria Price, Tara Blair, Serge Lilavois, Karen Davila and Leroy Brown. Photo courtesy of PATH.

    Santa Clara County is making great strides in our progress in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-August, arguably the height of summer season, our county reports reflected an average of 284 new cases reported in the past seven days. Sure, that’s higher than our mid-June 26-case average, but it’s also drastically lower than our January peak of 2,251 average weekly cases.

    We have the vaccine to thank for this new trajectory. As of Aug. 20, 86.2% of our county’s residents have received at least one vaccine dose; a whopping 1.37 million people are completely vaccinated.

    When it comes to serving our unhoused neighbors during the fight against the virus, both the city and county have taken proactive approaches to mitigating the impact of COVID for this vulnerable population. Thanks to Project Roomkey, hundreds of hotels were converted into COVID-friendly shelter spaces. People who are medically vulnerable now have more options than congregate shelter settings—they have a private room to safely shelter in place.

    Still, there remains a greater need for shelter resources than are currently available. For those who remain outdoors, risks abound. In light of COVID restrictions, many public restrooms closed, either due to business closure or lack of staffing to properly maintain these spaces during the pandemic. People who rely on public restrooms to clean themselves no longer had safe spaces to wash their hands—an essential practice during COVID. As a result, the city identified places with high needs and brought in hand washing stations and restrooms.

    Thankfully, a combination of the city and county’s proactive efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID in the unhoused community proved largely successful. So now, during a time when the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, our goal is to support vaccination outreach amongst the community.

    Many unhoused people have the same hesitancies you hear about elsewhere: misinformation about the virus and vaccines alike, reluctance to expose themselves to symptoms related to the vaccine, and like other underserved communities, there is a deep distrust in the systems that encourage vaccination. Some people experiencing homelessness are also concerned about the risks that come with managing the symptoms they are likely to experience with the vaccine—they may not have the option to rest and recover during side effects such as soreness and fever.

    Additionally, for those who are unhoused, many have less access to information that could quell these concerns—people may lack access to technology to read reliable sources, consult with a medical provider to inquire if the vaccine is right for them and to schedule an appointment at a local pharmacy or clinic.

    Santa Clara County has devised a new plan to target these barriers by providing robust outreach efforts to unhoused persons. The county’s existing outreach providers, which include PATH, are deploying staff across the region to bring vaccine information to people experiencing homelessness.

    Each provider is prioritizing hiring people with lived experience to lead these outreach efforts. Many of the people conducting this outreach have had the experience of making critical health care decisions while being unhoused. Their experience is essential in building trusting relationships to have real conversations about the benefits and risks of the vaccine.

    The focused outreach team is deployed across the county to hold conversations with people about their decision while offering up-to-date information about the virus and vaccination options. PATH teams are equipped with resources to quickly coordinate with local health care providers and vaccine clinics to eliminate barriers to accessing the vaccine. Our end goal is to empower individuals to make the best choice for each of their unique circumstances, based on facts and information.

    At PATH, we are often finding the silver lining in trying situations. We find gratitude in the fact the pandemic has forged new and necessary ways to protect our unhoused neighbors. We are grateful that advocates, county and city officials and service providers have rallied throughout the pandemic to meet the unique needs of those who are unhoused.

    This moment has uncovered even more of what we have in common with our unhoused neighbors—our shared concerns, challenges and fears. Hopefully, we emerge with a revived vision for a community where everyone has the resources to protect their health.

    San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is the director of programs at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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