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Social distancing is not a homeless shelter’s strong suit.
But several mobile clinics are popping up in shelters in Wichita to vaccinate as many unsheltered people as possible against COVID — especially as winter temperatures force scores of people inside.
The city of Wichita approved a $50,000 grant for United Way of the Plains to launch a program encouraging unsheltered people to receive their first or second vaccine dose, or a booster, in exchange for a $30 gift card to QuikTrip.
Matt Lowe, a community impact manager for United Way, said local organizations have arranged vaccine clinics prior to the grant, but with minimal success.
“My experience in the shelters is, when we would have the clinics, there was very low participation,” he said. “Out of every 50 people you might have one or two. It was always low numbers.”
Emilio Lopez got his first vaccine dose in August. He said he didn’t feel particularly motivated to get the second one until he happened to visit United Methodist Open Door on Feb. 18 — United Way’s first mobile clinic.
“This is the place that I come to to stay until I get on my feet,” Lopez said. He was released from jail a few days prior and is currently unsheltered.
“I need the second dose and I’m trying to gain employment. I think most of the good jobs are requiring it so I just jumped on. The second reason, I’ll be honest, was because of the $30,” he said.
Doug Nolte, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said the general public doesn’t always include unsheltered people when discussing public health concerns.
“One of the misconceptions that people sometimes think: Just because you don’t have a place to stay as a permanent home doesn’t mean you’re not worried about all the same things everyone else is — including how you’re going to be protected by coronavirus,” he said.
United Way wants to vaccinate 400 unsheltered people by the end of May through the new initiative, according to Lowe — not including booster shots. Lopez is one of the first.
‘Protecting all of our residents’
Wichita received a $3.3 million Emergency Solutions Grant from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The federal funds are earmarked for projects to “prevent, prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency among individuals and families who are homeless or receiving homeless assistance.”
The city is under deadline to spend at least 80% of the funds by March 31 before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recaptures any unspent money.
The City Council approved United Way’s clinic proposal on Feb. 15.
“Protecting all of our residents during the ongoing COVID pandemic is crucial to our community’s health and well-being,” Sally Stang, director of Wichita’s Housing and Community Services Department, said in an email to The Wichita Beacon.
“We want to provide equitable opportunities for protections against the virus, and we believe that working alongside our community partners will allow us to be able to reach more individuals,” she added.
Lowe said the project was partly to take advantage of the federal CARES money, while also addressing a recent surge of COVID cases in shelters due to the omicron variant.
“Two shelters had to shut down due to positive cases. Hotel isolation was full. The (county) health commissioner sent a letter to shelters urging them to require a vaccination, but there was consensus that that was not something we could do during a winter emergency,” he said.
Nolte said Union Rescue Mission’s men’s shelter saw COVID infection rushing through facilities in early January — counting over 100 positive tests in one week.
“At that point, if people were coming to us they were going to get infected. We didn’t want that. But we also didn’t want to send guys out,” Nolte said. “We had to kind of put the disclaimer out that we’ve got too many positive cases.”
United Way collaborated with other organizations — including Open Door, Salvation Army and HumanKind Ministries — to develop the program of using gift cards to incentivize unsheltered individuals to get vaccinated.
Lowe said the brainstorming settled on $30 gift cards out of concerns that higher amounts would leave an unsheltered person vulnerable to robbery.
Nolte said he thinks the gift card is an effective incentive, but worries it’s not foolproof. A card could be manipulated into a bargaining chip, he said.
“Our intent is knowing the worth of a vaccination,” he said. “But you can certainly sell a gift card for money — $30 gift card, sell it for $20. Worth it for the vaccination, but not a perfect system.”
Agencies settled on QuikTrip for its convenient locations — there are stations on all four corners of downtown where the unsheltered population is concentrated — and its designation as a Safe Place. The gift cards don’t allow purchases of cigarettes or alcohol.
The city also offered 600 all-day bus passes to provide transportation for the clinics.
Mandy Griffin — office manager and clinical care coordinator for ICT Street Team, a free, mobile clinic for unsheltered people — said the group will hold vaccination events during its regular street clinics.
“We are posting on our Facebook page, we have signs on our tables at clinic and are verbally telling everyone,” she said in an email. “We have also informed staff at local emergency rooms so they can encourage individuals that they encounter there.”
ICT Street Team has successfully hosted vaccination clinics with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, according to Griffin. She said the team anticipates an even higher turnout with the added gift card incentive.
The street clinic will give shots every other week as a collaborator with United Way’s clinic program.
After Lopez received his second dose of the COVID vaccine, he walked out of the waiting room where nurses watch for immediate symptoms and stepped up to Lowe. He was seated at a table with Jaraya Reynolds, the Continuum of Care housing navigator for United Way.
Lopez wrote down his name on a sheet of paper while Reynolds scribbled on a vaccine card the date of his dosage.
Reynolds then slipped the card over to Lowe, who held up the paper to his laptop’s computer, taking a photo of it to upload to United Way’s Homeless Management Information System, a secure database with a photo of each unsheltered person and their corresponding profile.
“We’re still giving them the card and encouraging them to keep up with it, but backing it up in a secure database just in case,” Lowe said.
Lowe said no local data tracks the number of vaccinated unsheltered individuals, but he estimates a low percentage.
“There’s been so much sacrifice and service for this vulnerable population. This is a real opportunity for our homeless service providers to work together and address this issue. We’re honored,” he said.
Lopez sat in the hallway leading to the clinic. Behind him, nurses wiped down bare arms in preparation for the needle.
He gripped his vaccine card in one hand and answered an important question: Does his arm hurt yet?
“Nah,” he said, grinning. “I do push-ups.”