Local nurse delivers more than 650 vaccines to homeless individuals
Underneath the shady trees surrounding the commuter lot on Carrillo and Castillo streets, local nurse Cathy Mollkoy gets to work.
Operating from the Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine van and armed with her stethoscope, she begins to address a line of homeless patients awaiting different forms of medical care.
She wraps a blood pressure cuff around one patient’s arm, while another waits in line to receive a flu shot. She asks each patient about their overall health and checks to see if they are in need of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ms. Mollkoy has a natural warmth and compassion about her — the kind that makes each and every patient feel welcomed and cared for.
It’s a genuine kind of care that informs her daily work as an emergency room nurse at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, a parish nurse with Cottage Health and a nurse with Doctors Without Walls.
Ms. Mollkoy conducts regular outreach among homeless individuals across Santa Barbara on Tuesdays and Thursdays alongside other members of Doctors Without Walls. She joins the team on their van rounds across Santa Barbara, where they seek to provide care for homeless and unhoused individuals, which includes offering the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since March, Ms. Mollkoy has helped deliver more than 650 COVID-19 vaccines to homeless individuals in Santa Barbara.
During their weekly rounds, members of the Doctors Without Walls team travel around Santa Barbara, stopping along the street when they see someone in need.
The team will often pull over and talk with homeless individuals, offering medical attention, water and food. They also discuss the COVID-19 vaccine and sometimes offer the shot to patients right on site if they want it.
Eventually, the team ends up at the commuter lot on Carrillo Street by late Tuesday morning, where they treat homeless individuals and offer both the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine. The team sets up a small table with soap, lotion and disposable razors, as well as other goods that homeless individuals may need.
This weekly effort at the commuter lot is coupled with a clinic held Thursday evenings at Alameda Park, where Ms. Mollkoy and a team from Doctors Without Walls offer medical check-ups and vaccines to homeless individuals.
When the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available in March, Ms. Mollkoy knew that homeless individuals would need access to a single-shot dose, as they are often moving around and don’t stay stationary for long.
“I knew right away that our clientele was not going to be able to take the Pfizer or Moderna because they don’t have a stationary place (and) they’re being moved around,” Ms. Mollkoy told the News-Press. “I knew Johnson & Johnson was the only one that was going to help.”
With this in mind, Ms. Mollkoy and her team at Doctors Without Walls partnered with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, which provided shots for the mobile clinics. The department provided hundreds of doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which fully inoculates someone after just one jab.
Ms. Mollkoy said the vaccine has been well-received by many in the local homeless community, noting that the first few clinics held at Alameda Park, the Faulding Hotel and the El Carrillo apartment complex drew more than 100 individuals interested in getting the shot.
The vaccine effort continues now through street outreach by Doctors Without Walls, who Ms. Mollkoy said has delivered over 53.5% of all shots given to the local homeless population.
Reflecting on the past few months of delivering vaccines, Ms. Mollkoy noted that the biggest change she’s seen in the outreach process is the depth of the personal ties she and the other staff are able to form with patients.
Before the pandemic, patients would be triaged through the clinic, meet with the doctor and go about their day, Ms. Mollkoy explained. But now, with the COVID-19 vaccine requiring a 15-minute wait time to check for reactions, Ms. Mollkoy said she and the team at Doctors Without Walls have formed deeper connections with homeless individuals just by sitting with them during that time.
“It was kind of like a bonding experience with them,” Ms. Mollkoy said. “That’s mainly what changed (during COVID). Our clinic used to be stationary, so (patients) would have to come up to us at Pershing or Alameda, and you wouldn’t have a lot of interaction with them because someone would triage them, someone would take their vital signs, then the doctor would see them and then they would leave again to get food.”
“This way, we have no stationary (clinic),” she added. “We would just be walking, we could stop and talk, find out what they needed, refer them to a primary care provider if they didn’t want the Johnson & Johnson for some reason — and there were people that didn’t — if they wanted the Pfizer or Moderna, we could tell them where to go and we could set up an appointment.”
Providing compassionate care to unhoused individuals is something Ms. Mollkoy has done for a number of years now, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She said that her parents always instilled in her a “sense of service” and taught her to show compassion.
She said that many of the people who are homeless here were born and raised in the city, but ended up on the street for a number of reasons — mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, traumatic brain injury, domestic violence or post-traumatic stress disorder.
With this in mind, she encourages local residents to look upon the homeless population with compassion and empathy.
“I’ve always thought it could be me, it could happen to any of us,” Ms. Mollkoy said. “Especially in Santa Barbara where we live. Some people live paycheck to paycheck, and they’re deciding whether to get their diabetic test strips or eat that month.”
“I just always felt like everyone should have access,” she added. “Everyone might not have the same opportunities, but if I can help them navigate their way through the medical system, then that makes me feel good. It’s helping them, but it makes me feel good too. ”
Ms. Mollkoy praised the efforts of the entire Doctors Without Walls team, saying without them, the robust outreach would not be possible.
“It was a joint effort,” Ms. Mollkoy said. “I don’t want it to seem like it was only me because it wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it without everybody.”