JEFFERSONVILLE — Within hours of the first shipments of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine to Southern Indiana, health care workers were well underway in registering some of the most at-risk — the unsheltered population.
On Friday, Southern Indiana health officials confirmed 1,000 doses expected this week of the third vaccine to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The total included allotments to Clark Memorial Health, Baptist Health Floyd, the Clark and Floyd County health departments and LifeSpring Health Systems.
Of these, LifeSpring plans to use 200 of the initial doses this week to target people in emergency shelters, group homes and — working with other community partners — do outreach to vaccinate homeless on the street.
On Monday, LifeSpring staff were at Catalyst Rescue Mission in Jeffersonville, getting residents signed up for the vaccine later this week. By noon, they had registered about 60 people, with 15 more to be registered before Thursday. Eight other residents of the roughly 90 total had already been vaccinated before this week’s campaign.
“The response was great,” said Beth Keeney, senior vice president for Community Health and Primary Care Services at LifeSpring. “There were a couple who were nervous about vaccinations so we were able to talk to them about some of their concerns and they’re thinking about whether it’s the right choice for them.”
She added that focusing on the unsheltered population or those who live in group settings is crucial, in part because they may already be subject to other health conditions that can make it much more dangerous for them to get COVID.
“We know that individuals experiencing homelessness also have really significant rates of co-morbid conditions including diabetes, hypertension, asthma...all of these chronic conditions which can make COVID disease worse,” Keeney said. “We also know that when they live in congregate group settings, that COVID can spread really rapidly. We know that getting them vaccinated is a priority.”
Jim Moon, executive director at Catalyst, said when he told residents of the upcoming voluntary vaccinations, most were excited about the opportunity. This includes 56-year-old Betsy Spurr, a retired factory worker who came to the shelter in mid-November after a domestic violence situation. Although she’s fairly healthy, Spurr has some physical and logistic limitations that made her worry about how she was going to be able to get the vaccine.
“It was going to be an issue for me because I’m ambulatory and I don’t have a car,” she said. “So that was my main worry was about how and where I was going to get one. But now that they brought it to us, it makes it a lifesaver. It’s been a godsend to us that they think well enough of us to bring it here to us because there’s plenty of people like that in my boat that don’t have a way in or a way out to go get that.
“We’re trying to get back in the community. We’re trying to better ourselves and get back out there so this is one more step to make that transition.”
Others were a little less excited, but still willing to get the vaccine.
“I’m a little skeptical, but might as well nip it in the bud,” resident Rick Jones said. And although the LifeSpring outreach to the unsheltered community includes anyone 18 and older, some of the residents have already gotten either the Pfizer of Moderna vaccine — which both require two shots — first approved through the state’s tiered system for priority. As of Monday, that includes health care workers, first responders, anyone over 50 and people with certain underlying health conditions. Indiana teachers are eligible through a federal plan announced last week.
“I was already ready for it,” said Peggy Osborne, a 66-year-old Catalyst resident who got her second dose about two weeks ago. “I [wanted] to do it to make sure I was in a better place.”
Moon said the quick action by the Clark County Health Department to ensure that residents would be covered and by LifeSpring for vaccinating them will not only mean more protection from spread of the disease within the shelter but a new freedom for residents.
“The Clark County Health Department has been so good to us,” he said. “They know this is a vulnerable population, and they really try to make sure the needs of the homeless are met.”
Early into the pandemic, the shelter started putting stringent safety plans in place — masks, sanitizer, extra cleaning. They also set up a system for new intakes to quarantine for two weeks away from the larger shelter population before they move in. Residents don’t leave the property except for essentials like work or doctor’s appointments.
But, Moon said, he hopes when most of the shelter population is vaccinated, some of those restrictions can start to loosen up. They’ll be looking for guidance from the shelter’s chief medical officer, Dr. Michael Bonacum.
“Some of them haven’t visited with their close family and their friends, they haven’t been able to go to Christmas and Easter and Thanksgivings that they normally would be invited to,” he said. “Some of these folks are on disability [and] have been here this whole time since March 13 and have not been able to go anywhere. So it’s huge for them — they’re going to be able to get out in the fresh air and walk.”
Spurr said when she moved to the shelter four months ago in the middle of the pandemic, that was one of her concerns with the group living. But she said staff has been really diligent about the safety and cleanliness.
“It’s nothing like the idea that most people have about shelters,” she said. “I’ve been very protected here, they make sure you get your meds, you have great food here.” She added that they’ve helped her with paperwork and getting things together she needs to soon be moving to her own place again.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said. “I’m very grateful for them here.”
LifeSpring staff will be administering the vaccines at Catalyst Thursday. On Friday, they’ll be working with Nomad Collective in New Albany and on Sunday, doing outreach with Exit 0 to help vaccinate some of the people who live on the streets and are not connected with a shelter or group home.