“Safety from a dangerous environment.” Vaccines roll out to homeless Virginians

Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 12:17 AM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - At Roanoke’s Rescue Mission, bedtime can get crowded.

Every night, between 150 to 200 people crawl into bunks at the downtown homeless shelter. In the age of COVID, social distancing measures are in place. Handwashing is encouraged with signs. People are also asked to sleep head-to-toe in alternating bunks to add just a little bit more space.

“Communal living is a setting that can really spread the virus really quick,” said Mission spokesperson Kevin Berry. “And we were very fortunate to not have any major outbreaks here at the mission.”

Berry hopes soon, such an outbreak will be “virtually impossible.”

Over the last month, more than 130 staff, volunteers and guests have received their first or second dose vaccine at the Mission, most during a clinic in February.

“Anybody who says that they want it, we’re going to do what we can to get it to them,” said Berry.

Statewide, Virginia’s homeless have been lumped into priority 1b for vaccination, but only when they step into congregate facilities like the Mission. That means sometimes, homeless Virginians get their shots at clinics. More often, they’re getting the leftovers.

That’s how guests at “To Our House,” a much smaller seasonal shelter in Christiansburg, got their vaccinations. When the health department has an extra shot, or someone bails on an appointment, the TOH staff gets a call.

“It’s just being able to work people in, with time and availability and vaccine, along the way,” said Morris Fleicher, board chair of To Our House’s policy council. According to Fleicher, about half of TOH’s guests have asked for, and received, their vaccinations.

Several of the Roanoke Rescue Mission’s staff and guests also got their shots this way. In February, the Roanoke Alleghany Health District’s Dr. Cynthia Morrow wrote in an email to WDBJ7 that “We have to have a system in place to use any vaccine dose in a vial that has been opened ... because opened vials need to be used within a short time frame (hours).”

“When we get to the last appointment, we see how many doses are left in the last open vial. We have a list of people who are eligible for vaccine in Phase 1b (including folks from the Rescue Mission, health department staff, medical reserve volunteers who staff clinics, and first responders) and who are either already at the clinic or who can be at the clinic within a few minutes,” Morrow wrote.

In a twist, vaccination efforts have also been aided by the pandemic. Both the Rescue Mission and To Our House report fewer new guests arriving, and more guests staying long term.

“People have kind of locked down to where they are,” said Morris Fleicher. That makes it easier to let guests know when it’s time to get their second dose.

Fleischer and Berry say getting homeless Virginians vaccinated is vital. It’s not just a matter of life and death, they argue; it’s a matter of getting lives back on track.

“This is not just about safety from the virus,” said Berry. “This is about safety from a dangerous environment that we know that our guests may be sleeping in.”

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