County continues efforts to provide shots and COVID-19 education
Throughout the pandemic, the Public Health Department has taken a multi-faceted approach to providing vaccines and COVID-19 education to homeless individuals across Santa Barbara County.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, public health officials across the nation began voicing concern about the threat of the virus to vulnerable communities.
In Santa Barbara County specifically, one particularly vulnerable segment of the population are homeless individuals.
According to the most recent point in time count conducted in January 2020, about 1,900 individuals are experiencing homelessness in the county. In order to protect and vaccinate this vulnerable population, the county’s Public Health Department formed partnerships with community organizations and used mobile clinics to offer shots to homeless individuals.
By utilizing various partnerships and deploying mobile clinics, the Public Health Department has vaccinated 57% of the county’s homeless population as of July 20, according to Dana Gamble, interim deputy director of the department’s Primary Care and Family Health Division.
This vaccination effort began in February, when the county’s Public Health Department started deploying mobile clinics to reach underserved populations across the region. In total, the county has completed about 21 clinics to serve homeless individuals in both north and south county.
The majority of these mobile clinics were completed through a partnership with Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine, a nonprofit hat delivers free health services for some of the county’s most vulnerable.
Through partnerships with DWW-SBSM, the county was able to conduct 16 vaccine clinics on the South Coast, according to Mr. Gamble.
The county has also doled out vaccines to homeless individuals at five of its eight Health Care Centers. The clinics, which have locations in Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Lompoc and Santa Maria, allow homeless people to walk in and receive the vaccine without an appointment, Mr. Gamble said.
In addition to these methods, the vaccination effort is furthered by nurses from the county’s longstanding Health Care for the Homeless program, who have played a big part in the Public Health Department’s efforts to serve the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis.
Throughout the pandemic, Public Health Department nurses have entered encampments and shelters to deliver care and education pertaining to COVID-19. Their outreach expanded in July when the nurses began carrying vaccinations with them to provide shots on-site for unvaccinated individuals.
Mr. Gamble said the nurses perform outreach with homeless individuals on a five-day a week schedule, entering shelters in Santa Maria, Lompoc and Santa Barbara. He said this regular connection with homeless people has built trust among hesitant populations and encouraged many to get their shot in the arm.
“The nurses are phenomenal at building trust, and because of the relationship that they’ve built over time, they are able to talk about the vaccine and when people are hesitant they can encourage them,” Mr. Gamble said. “In many cases, they are able to administer the vaccine after a few attempts or requests to ask if people are interested.”
The challenge now is overcoming barriers to administering the vaccine, which Mr. Gamble said are largely synonymous among the general population and unhoused population.
After the vaccine effort peaked in the spring, vaccine interest waned among the general population. Those who were most enthusiastic to get the vaccine did so early on, Mr. Gamble said.
That same trend was seen among the homeless population as well, leaving county officials the task of convincing a hesitant population to get their shot.
One of the ways officials are aiming to complete this difficult task is by continuing to offer information on the safety of vaccines and providing additional vaccine clinics at shelters across the county.
At PATH Santa Barbara, 31 out of the 75 residents living at the shelter are fully vaccinated, according to Shannon Brunner, the director of programs at PATH.
In the spring, the shelter hosted two vaccination clinics with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for homeless individuals. By offering the single-shot vaccine, health officials removed a barrier of having individuals return for a second shot, Ms. Brunner told the News-Press.
She said she’s hoping to hold another vaccine clinic soon for interested individuals to boost the vaccination rate in the shelter.
“I think hopefully if we can have that second round of vaccination clinics, it could really up the percentage of individuals here who are vaccinated,” Ms. Brunner said.
She added that a key part of upping the vaccination rate is providing education.
When living on the street, trustworthy information can be hard to come by, so PATH is aiming to provide educational materials to the residents to show that the vaccines are safe and that side effects are rare and treatable, Ms. Brunner said.
Officials are taking a similar approach at Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Maria, where about 65% of residents are fully vaccinated.
According to Sylvia Barnard, the shelter’s executive director, outreach teams discuss the safety of the COVID vaccine with residents on a regular basis, but are facing the biggest challenges in helping residents overcome fear tied to misinformation.
“The biggest barrier we see in this population getting vaccinated is just overall fear, mistrust and the spread of misinformation,” Ms. Barnard told the News-Press in an email. “We continue to have difficult conversations with our guests experiencing homelessness about the benefits of the vaccine and tend to see that heart to heart conversations are the best way to increase the vaccination rate amongst this population.”
With a number of residents still unvaccinated at both Good Samaritan Shelter and PATH, all staff and residents are currently required to wear masks and sanitize their hands often, regardless of vaccination status. At PATH, new residents are required to take a rapid COVID-19 test upon arrival, and at Good Samaritan, residents are screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms.
Next week, in accordance with recommendations from the Public Health Department, Ms. Brunner said PATH will begin regularly testing unvaccinated residents and staff to track potential outbreaks. At Good Samaritan, residents undergo bi-weekly testing to track the spread of any outbreaks.
Currently, neither Good Samaritan or PATH have any active outbreaks at their shelters, according to representatives. Ms. Barnard said there are a few residents from Good Samaritan shelter, however, who are quarantined in hotels at this time.