Dr. MK Orsulak often administers just a handful of COVID-19 vaccines when she goes out to homeless encampments. Sometimes she makes return trips to try again.
“But every time there’s at least one vaccine or someone we didn't get before,” she said.
With the delta variant spreading rapidly in Sacramento, advocates and health care providers are working hard to vaccinate unhoused people who have unique challenges and hold-ups around the vaccine. Orsulak, a UC Davis physician who works with numerous clinics and outreach teams serving the unhoused population, says that has made the roll-out difficult.
Just over 1,900 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to Sacramento’s homeless population as of July 29, according to data from the Sacramento County Department of Public Health. The county’s point-in-time count in January 2019 was 5,570 people, and their estimate on the total number of people experiencing homelessness annually is 10,000.
Orsulak and others who work with unhoused individuals say there isn’t an accurate way to calculate the vaccination rate among people experiencing homelessness, because the point-in-time count is likely an underestimate and the dose total doesn’t include people who got vaccines in locations not tracked by the county.
But they expect there are large numbers of unhoused people who haven’t gotten the shot, either because they don’t know where to find it or because they oppose vaccination.
“One of [the barriers] is access,” Orsulak said. “But the other, which is harder to address in a programmatic fashion, is just long-term distrust of the government and medical system.”
She says it’s important for providers to be willing to spend long stretches of time hearing out peoples’ concerns and giving them accurate information.
Deago Williams said he contracted COVID-19 while living on the streets last year. He says he’s not interested in taking the vaccine because he’s concerned about safety.
“Why would the FDA approve medicine for an outbreak real quick like that?” he said. “And it’s supposed to stop you from getting this COVID? Come on, no way.”
Multiple major health organizations have confirmed that the vaccine is safe and effective.
Earlier this month the city of Sacramento approved a plan to create multiple sanctioned sites where unhoused people can legally camp.
Joseph Smith, the Loaves and Fishes advocacy director says the city’s new plan could be a boon to the immunization effort.
“Maybe more people’ll be willing to get the vaccine if they know they have a place to stay for a while to get over any side effects they may have,” he said.
For now, Loaves and Fishes homeless resource center is running vaccine clinics twice a week, and outreach teams are going to camps to offer the shots. Advocates are giving out care kits containing ice packs, deodorant and snacks to help people recuperate if they don’t feel well after getting vaccinated.
And the county is partnering with nonprofit groups to hire “vaccine ambassadors” to do vaccine education at shelters and camps.
“We just need to continue to build trust, build those relationships and have those conversations,” said Liz Gomez, human services program planner for the county. “It’s just taken time.”
Kristie Cox has been unhoused for more than a decade. She says she tries to keep her distance from others to protect herself, and that she took the COVID-19 vaccine without hesitation.
“It was alright, it didn’t hurt too bad,” she said. “Don’t be scared, just get it.”
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