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Bellingham
Sunday, February 28, 2021

Shortage of vaccine for unhoused residents

Unhoused population in Bellingham waits for the vaccine while being twice as vulnerable

Headshot of research scientist and physician Stephen Hwang. Hwang is part of an effort in Canada to vaccine homeless shelters.
Headshot of research scientist and physician Stephen Hwang. Hwang is part of an effort in Canada to vaccine homeless shelters. // Courtesy of Stephen Hwang

By Georgia Costa

Although many suffer when there’s a shortage of COVID-19 vaccinations, said Melissa Morin, the public outreach officer at the Whatcom County Health Department, Bellingham’s unhoused population is among the most affected. 

Research scientist Stephen Hwang, who is part of a pilot effort to deliver vaccines to shelters in Ontario, Canada, said it’s difficult to vaccinate the unhoused because of their constant movement and displacement.

Organizing vaccine rollout for people at a shelter is challenging because the vaccinations have to be brought to the individuals, Hwang said.

According to an article from the New York Times, a homeless person is twice as vulnerable to COVID-19 as the rest of the population because of the congregate setting.

“Unless we put in specialized programs to get this population vaccinated, it won’t happen,” Hwang said.

In Washington state, unhoused people are eligible for the vaccination during Phase 1B Tier 4, said Morin. All people over 65 are eligible right now, regardless of housing, according to Washington’s phased vaccination plan

Morin said the demand for vaccinations is much higher than the number of vaccine doses given by the state. 

“A key role of the [department] in the COVID-19 vaccination effort is to ensure that there is equitable access to the vaccine,” Morin said. “Outreach to vulnerable populations is a vital part of that work.”

Morin said the department’s public health outreach to the unhoused is through word of mouth, Lighthouse Mission Ministries and the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team.  

According to the city’s website, Bellingham lacks the appropriate and trained staff to open indoor shelters for those who are unhoused.

“The city should be declaring an emergency,” Flip Breskin, a community activist, said. “The conditions [unhoused people] are in are very dangerous. The city does not do enough.”

Breskin, who mobilized local relief to the unhoused in Bellingham, said public health outreach can be improved by requiring homeless shelter base camps, like Lighthouse Mission, to provide assistance for every unhoused person turned away from the shelters. 

In Canada, where Hwang has been working with the vaccination rollout effort for the unhoused, there has also been a shortage of vaccines resulting in a temporary halt in the process. 

Due to the shortage, the project has been conducted at one site in Ontario, and 55 residents were vaccinated, Hwang said. 

“I’m hopeful the shortage will end,” Hwang said. “I just don’t know when that will happen.”

Hwang said although everyone is entitled to health care in Canada and the project is federally funded, many unhoused people don’t trust the health care system, which could affect their likelihood of receiving the vaccine.

Trust is achieved through experience, and many people who are homeless have had negative experiences with the health care system, Hwang said. “In both the U.S. and Canada, indigenous [populations] are more likely to be homeless.” 

Black Americans, a marginalized community in the U.S., are more likely to have a distrust in the health care system due to systemic inequities, Hwang said. 

Morin said the department is especially focused on getting the vaccine to those who historically have faced health inequities. They’re working with community partners who provide services to vulnerable groups, which includes people experiencing homelessness, to help improve their access to and information about the vaccine, she said.

More information about vaccine rollout can be found here. To determine your vaccine eligibility go to FindYourPhaseWA.org.Fi

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