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Detroit leads charge vaccinating its homeless population against COVID-19

In March, the state made homeless individuals eligible for the vaccine — Detroit had prioritized the group since January
Posted at 4:21 PM, Mar 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-19 18:31:50-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Amy Good runs Alternatives for Girls, a Detroit non-profit that provides housing and support for homeless and high-risk girls and young women. For nearly 10 months through the pandemic, they managed to stay open and do what seemed impossible: Keep COVID-19 out.

"It is very important in a communal living situation to keep the virus," said Good. "We kept the virus out of our shelter almost miraculously until December."

"Some staff and some of our shelter residents and even a toddler tested positive," said Good.

What happened within the shelter highlights how those experiencing homeless have been some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

"They’re bouncing around from household to household," said Good, stressing that many of the individuals her organizations helps are susceptible to the virus at so many moments during their days. "They have to use public transportation when they get from place to place, they often don’t have access to health care, don’t have access to a stable, safe home let alone PPE."

And why it’s not just those who are homeless that are at risk.

"One can not run a homeless shelter remotely," said Good, noting how her staff also put themselves at risk as essential workers.

The risk is why this month the state made homeless populations eligible for the vaccine. But Detroit, which has been ticking through eligibility requirements at a quicker clip than other municipalities, had been focusing on the populations for months already.

"We’ve vaccinated over 2300 people who are experiencing homelessness and also staff of about 30 homeless shelter programs," said Denise Fair, the city's Chief Public Health Officer, who explains that to accommodate such a vulnerable and transient population they are they — along with Henry Ford Health System — have gone directly to shelters.

"They came to Alternatives For Girls twice," said Good. "Once in February. Once in January. Four weeks apart and brought the Moderna vaccine."

At Alternatives for Girls, 33 residents were vaccinated, 29 staff members and 18 volunteers.

"We’re focusing on meeting people where they are," said Fair.

But despite making homeless populations a priority, battles still remain. One in particular: vaccine hesitancy.

"People are really concerned about taking this vaccine which is incredibly new," said Fair, explaining that in recent weeks the city had conducted a survey to find out what was causing some to have second-thoughts.

"The two things that we noticed were people were scared about the side effects and people didn’t want to take the vaccine and die," said Fair.

The same was reiterated by Good.

"We had some girls who were adamant that people die from the vaccine," she said. "We tried to track that down and it’s just, you know, it was what they took away from what they had heard in the media and others."

In order to combat the misinformation, the city and Henry Ford have set up educational opportunities as well to help talk through some of the vaccine hesitancy barriers.

"We have done a lot of education," said Good. "and they do they respond to facts and science."