OGDEN — When the opportunity came to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Deana Armstrong, a resident at the Lantern House homeless shelter, jumped.
After getting her injection at a clinic at the shelter on Wednesday, she was ecstatic.
“It feels great,” said Armstrong, working at a fast-food eatery as she strives for a more stable future. “I’m protecting myself and the people I work with.”
The homeless are necessarily transient, making numerous community contacts in the course of a day, and they are potentially more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus, said Lauren Navidomskis, the Lantern House director. Thus, events like Wednesday’s — the first of its sort in Weber County specifically targeting the homeless population — are vital. Accessing the online registration forms used by most to sign up for vaccination appointments can be difficult for the homeless. Likewise, transportation to the clinics, like the one held most weekdays at the Dee Events Center on the Weber State University campus, can be problematic.
“Really, bringing the vaccine here was key,” Navidomskis said. Midtown Community Health Center sponsored and organized the event, working with other Ogden Rescue Mission, Lantern House and the Weber-Morgan Health Department, and secured the vaccine used through the Utah Department of Health.
In all, around 110 residents of Lantern House and Ogden Rescue Mission, another homeless shelter, got their shots on Wednesday. Navidomskis said local advocates for the homeless are thinking about holding another large clinic then providing access to smaller quantities of the vaccine to clients and residents as needed. All told, the hope is to temper the COVID-19 threat among what is arguably one of the most vulnerable populations — people without regular access to health care and with a higher likelihood of having underlying conditions.
Melissa Freigang, director of the Weber County Prosperity Center of Excellence, the county government body tasked with helping combat homelessness and intergenerational poverty, noted the COVID-19 outbreak last October at Lantern House that led to three deaths. A fourth possible COVID-19-related death is still under investigation. “We know from experience that if we do not vaccinate people experiencing homelessness, an outbreak is likely to happen again,” Freigang said.
But beyond helping the homeless themselves, she also noted that vaccination helps make places like Lantern House safer. Strict masking rules and other guidelines apply at Lantern House to temper the COVID-19 threat. “The vaccination of our homeless population will help alleviate the pressure on the agencies serving them,” Freigang said.
Among those getting vaccinated Wednesday, perhaps the most significant sentiment was the sense of relief. The clinic goers at Lantern House received Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine, which requires just one dose, not two as with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
“I’ve already had COVID once,” said Kimberly Stewart, another Lantern House resident. “I don’t want to get COVID again.”
Kenny Grove, who recently moved out of the Ogden Rescue Mission and now volunteers at the facility, had no doubts about getting vaccinated, though he knows some at the shelter have mixed sentiments. “I’m for it. I think it’s a definite thing we need to do. Definitely better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
That’s not to say there aren’t naysayers among the homeless.
“A few people that I know are leery about it because they’ve had relatives die from it,” said Stewart. For the record, the Utah Department of Health reports no deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccines. Officials at the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, meantime, have not detected ”patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines.”
Some Grove has spoken with just wonder if the COVID-19 threat is overblown. “They’re just wondering whether it’s worth their while to get the shot,” he said.
Navidomskis hears the naysayers, but she suspects they represent just a small share of the Lantern House population. And after Wednesday’s clinic, she hopes those who got shots spread the word and encourage others to get inoculated. “They really rely on each other for information,” she said.
At the same time, Freigang lauded staff at places like Lantern House for their efforts to counter misinformation and misperceptions. Since some of the initial skepticism when vaccinations of those 70 and up started last January, homeless shelter staffers “have done an incredible job ... promoting the importance of the vaccine and answering the multiple questions asked by their residents,” Freigang said.
As it stands, Lantern House will likely continue at least until July 1 with its mask and other guidelines meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Vaccination efforts like Wednesday’s, though, help pave the way to the day when masks can be tossed in the garbage and residents can mingle and interact more normally, Navidomskis said.