A lack of adequate supply of COVID-19 vaccines and the pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have stifled efforts to vaccinate homeless people in Washington County, officials say.
It has been nearly a month since Oregon's vaccine eligibility guidelines expanded to include homeless people, specifically. Some were eligible previously due to having a medical condition or disability.
A small number of homeless Washington County residents have already received doses either through addiction recovery services or transitional housing programs, said Tyler Slattery, a senior program coordinator with the county's COVID-19 response team.
But vaccine providers haven't yet opened clinics or held vaccination events exclusively for the estimated 1,000 homeless residents of Washington County.
Homeless people have been considered at higher risk for COVID-19 due to often living in congregate settings and not having access to sanitary resources.
Slattery said the county has partnered with Neighborhood Health Center, a nonprofit healthcare provider, to hold a vaccination event for homeless people to receive the first dose of a two-dose vaccine in early May. The event will be followed by another event several weeks later when people will receive their second dose.
Without specifying where, exactly, Slattery said four locations across the county will be open on both event days. The locations will be places frequented by homeless people, he said.
The events will primarily make the vaccine available to people in the county's winter shelter network registration system and those who access existing day centers, Slattery said.
Mary Sawyers, communications coordinator for Washington County Public Health, said it was logistically difficult to plan such events.
"It's hard to find providers to do it," Sawyers said.
She added that the county was initially planning on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but that plan had to be put on hold as national and state health officials paused the use of the vaccine amid concerns over blood clotting in several people who received it.
The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been held up by some public health officials as the best way to vaccinate people without access to transportation or a permanent address.
Federal officials lifted the pause on Friday, April 23, following their review, saying the vaccine is safe, effective and its benefits outweigh its risks. Oregon health officials followed suit on Saturday.
"It's unfortunate, but there has been less vaccine (available) than we would have liked for many populations, including the houseless population," Sawyers said.
Shawn Cardwell directs the Coalition on Rural Housing Insecurity, which operates sheltering and outreach to homeless people in Forest Grove and other parts of western Washington County.
Cardwell said transportation to and from vaccination sites will be a difficult barrier to providing vaccines to homeless people, especially in western Washington County, where people are often more isolated and more spread out.
"Getting people to go out to Hillsboro Stadium or something for a vaccine is going to be a challenging endeavor for some of our friends that are outside," Cardwell said. "For the homeless population, what does that mean to not have local access or individuals coming to camps to give vaccinations, which is maybe one of the better ways."
Cardwell said he's not familiar with how the county will overcome that barrier for homeless people living in areas such as Banks or Gaston, but he said he's confident officials are working to figure it out.
"We definitely acknowledge that's a significant need, and we're working around some of the options for that," Slattery said.
The county is hoping to establish a mobile vaccination clinic that will be able to offer vaccines to homeless people who aren't reached through the county's sheltering network or day center, Slattery said.
The county will also look to offer more vaccination events for homeless people following the first in early May, Slattery said.
Officials are also working with homeless service providers to inform people about how and where to get vaccines, Sawyers said, adding that the county is currently producing flyers with such information to be placed at shelters, day centers, markets and other places accessed by homeless people.
Cardwell said given the amount of energy homeless people will likely need to put into getting a vaccine, the county will have to overcome vaccine hesitancy among homeless people who haven't seen many members of their community become infected.
Only 16 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Washington County reported they were homeless within the last year, according to county officials.
Slattery said service providers have reported they hear vaccine hesitancy among people who access their services, adding that he has asked service providers to engage in conversations with people about the need to be vaccinated.
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