REACH Medical has lived up to its name in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, reaching underserved populations in Tompkins County to administer vaccines.
Working in tandem, REACH Medical and the Tompkins County Health Department have led the effort to bring vaccines to unhoused people in the county and other transient populations. With the additional support of community outreach organizations over the past eight weeks, they have vaccinated over 120 vulnerable Ithacans.
TCHD provides REACH with vaccines, and the nonprofit creates a sign-up list for vaccines administered on a first-come, first-serve basis at pop-up clinics across the county — in collaboration with other organizations like St. John’s Community Services and Lehman Alternative Community School.
St. John’s Community Services, the main shelter contracted through the Department of Social Services in Tompkins County, is at the center of this community effort. A hub for Ithaca’s unhoused populations, the shelter provides advocacy and support services for people to attain a better quality of life and foster a stronger community.
Because of pandemic distancing regulations, the 20-bed shelter currently houses just 10 people. To accommodate the rest of the unhoused population in the county, SJCS has teamed up with local hotels in the area to provide additional shelter. Despite these diffused locations, REACH has made their services readily available and accessible, according to SJCS program director Roy Murdough.
“REACH has really been a terrific partner for us,” Murdough said. “This is a population that has always not been easy to reach, simply because they are homeless.”
Because REACH travels to set up temporary vaccine clinics, temperature management for the doses posed an early problem. The recommended temperature for storing Moderna vaccines up to 30 days before they are used is between 36 and 46 degrees.
“We did a bunch of trial runs with coolers, and I bought what feels like about 100 different kinds of ice packs,” said REACH practice manager Samantha Stevenson. “We placed a bunch of barriers in between the cooler and the ice packs and the portable temperature monitor. Figuring it out was a little bit challenging, but we have that down pretty good now.”
The amount of people considered “homeless” in Ithaca varies depending on the season. In the colder months, the New York State law Code Blue mandates the provision of shelter for anyone in need when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
REACH aims to vaccinate both the Department of Social Services approved and the Code Blue unhoused populations. Accordingly, the team brings its vaccine clinics to SJCS, the Econo Lodge, a cost-friendly hotel in Ithaca, and the tented encampment in Ithaca known as “the Jungle.”
The Jungle is a collection of tents situated on state-owned land near downtown Ithaca, a community in which many Tompkins County homeless individuals live. The population of the Jungle fluctuates, but last year the pandemic prompted a major increase in the number of people living in the Jungle from about a dozen to approximately 60 individuals.
Even though REACH has vaccinated a majority of the unhoused and transient population to date, it will continue its efforts to make the vaccine as accessible as possible for underserved and hard to reach populations, who are especially vulnerable. It has also worked to vaccinate the staff in these shared housing spaces.
“As we continue our initiative, we still have people that kind of trickle into the shelter each week and sign-up to be vaccinated,” Stevenson said. “St. John’s holds a forever growing sign-up sheet, and we’re just going to keep answering the demand as best as we can.”
According to Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County Public Health Director, the health department prioritizes the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine for the unhoused population. Stevenson said that because it is hard to keep track of the individuals they vaccinate, the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine would facilitate the vaccination process better.
Before April 2, all of the vaccines administered were the two dose Moderna injections. Out of all of the Moderna vaccines they administered, only two people missed the second dose.
Although the one dose vaccine option will make the vaccination process smoother, other challenges remain. A deep mistrust of vaccines still exists among Ithaca’s unhoused population; REACH has prioritized vaccine education to alleviate some concerns, according to Stevenson.
“We’ve also taken on a big initiative to educate people on what the vaccine is, the ingredients in it and talking about our own vaccination experiences,” Stevenson said. And St. John’s has aided in this educational effort by providing education resources around the center.
“We are always letting people know that the vaccines are available, and we don’t really encourage people to do it, but we encourage them to make an informed decision,” Murdough said.
SJCS and REACH had worked with each other to assist vulnerable Ithacans in the past, specifically tackling the opioid crisis that affects many unhoused individuals. Murdough attributes the success of the current vaccine rollout to these prior inter-organizational partnerships.
“This kind of collaboration existed before COVID,” Murdough said, “but it has only increased since, and it’s been a really great partnership.”