Bobby Lloyd was hanging outside with friends in an empty east Nashville lot on Wednesday, enjoying the sunshine, when a doctor from Neighborhood Health walked by asking if anybody wanted to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Lloyd, 52, jumped at the chance, taking the short walk back with Dr. Peter Cathcart to the parking lot outside the nonprofit food charity, Loaves and Fishes, where nurses had set up a pair of camping stools in the shade.
Lloyd has recently experienced homelessness but now has a case manager, a temporary spot in an apartment and a free bus pass — until he gets back on his feet, he said. He also has COPD and asthma. He said he was relieved to get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“I don’t want to catch it and I’m hanging around a bunch of people who don’t wear masks,” Lloyd said.
The vaccination effort at Loaves and Fishes is part of a coordinated push by health officials, community organizations and health providers to bring vaccines to people experiencing homelessness in Nashville. The goal of collaboration between 19 public and private groups is to make the vaccine 100% accessible to people without permanent homes by Memorial Day. All of the efforts rely on the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, eliminating the need to coordinate a return for a second dose.
A “point-in-time count” conducted last year found that Nashville has a minimum of 2,000 people who are experiencing literal homelessness, defined as people staying in emergency shelters, encampments, cars or on the streets, according to Judith Tackett, director of Metro’s Homeless Impact Division. The number does not include people paying on their own to live in motels or couch surfing.
Similar efforts are slowly springing up across the state, but on a smaller scale, in an effort to reach an estimated 7,500 Tennessee residents without homes. In Johnson City, East Tennessee State University medical students have organized pop up clinics. In Memphis, county health officials last month launched mobile efforts to vaccinate both homeless and homebound individuals. In Rutherford County, St. Thomas Hospital has held one-day walk-in vaccination clinics for people experiencing homelessness.
Mobile vaccination efforts have been hampered until recently by the challenges in acquiring portable refrigerated storage units, said Jeremy McCraw, a nurse with Neighborhood Health, which has long operated mobile health clinics with the health center’s “street medical team” to provide primary healthcare to people experiencing homelessness.
Neighborhood Health officials placed orders for custom-made refrigerated units, equipped with data monitors that constantly track temperatures, in August. Their vendor, a California company, had promised to deliver them by November. When the units failed to arrive, the clinics’ staff switched vendors and finally got delivery two weeks ago.
State guidelines also require a strict eight-hour time limit for vaccines to remain in mobile coolers, he said.
On Wednesday, only a handful of individuals decided to get the vaccine outside Loaves and Fishes. Dr. Cathcart motioned a passerby over to suggest he get the vaccine, but once the man got close enough to understand what was being offered, he shook his head, said “no way” and walked on.
McCraw said he has heard multiple reasons for vaccine hesitation in their mobile work thus far: “it’s killing people,” “it’s a government conspiracy,” “I’m not a guinea pig,” “ain’t nobody got COVID in this camp.”
But he has also seen people eager to get the vaccine. At an earlier mobile event outside the former Roadway Inn, people lined up to take the vaccine.
Featured photo: Kevin Hawkins, who is homeless, grimaces as he gets the Johnson and Johnson vaccine from Deanna Hensley, RN, from Ascension/St. Thomas. (Photo: John Partipilo)