WORCESTER — Residents of Ascension Church’s homeless shelter, UMass medical students and shelter staff spent Tuesday doing their best to maneuver through a tight shelter lobby when it became a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site.
Sonia Y. Thomas of Worcester runs the showers at the shelter and is a recovery coach. Before agreeing to take the vaccine, Thomas said she had her concerns about the side effects before being set at ease by an explanation of the vaccine provided by Dr. Matilde Castiel, Worcester’s commissioner of health and human services.
“I wanted to hear more about the side effects and I wanted to be reassured,” Thomas said.
After getting the vaccine, Thomas felt relieved and noticed her anxiety level lowering. She encouraged members of the Black community, like herself, and those in recovery to consider those they care about when deciding whether to get the vaccine.
“Take it for your family and your community. You’d rather have that extra protection,” Thomas said, “Especially people of color and in recovery.”
Congregate care and shelter programs are in Phase 1 for receiving the vaccine, as outlined in the Massachusetts Vaccination Advisory Group principles for equitable COVID-19 vaccine administration. Tuesday was the first day residential congregate care programs and emergency shelter programs, including homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and veterans’ shelters, could receive the vaccine.
Ascension Church’s Hotel Grace shelter was the first shelter in the city to start vaccinating. The medical team came with 60 vaccines to administer to willing shelter residents, shelter staff and some nearby group home residents. Medical students from UMass Medical School were on the site to administer the vaccine. Castiel said congregate living situations and the higher likelihood of health issues for homeless people make getting the vaccine to the shelters a priority.
“They’re living in this type of congregate living where everybody is together, they’re out in the community, they come back. They can expose people if they have COVID. The riskiest situation is being in this type of situation,” Castiel said, “They carry a lot of the burden of disease. There’s lots of people with lung disease, liver disease, that makes them at an even greater risk to have severe effects with COVID.”
To answer any concerns residents or staff may have about the vaccine, Castiel said she prepared shelter staff to be able to talk to residents and she came to answer any questions residents might have. She said the residents were receptive to getting vaccinated, “I don’t think I had anybody who was not receptive and said ‘I’m not getting it.’ We do a lot of town halls in the community to get people to understand the vaccine and usually there’s a lot of hesitancy and I didn’t see hesitancy here.”
Richie Gonzalez, pastor at Ascension Church and director of Hotel Grace, said that around 40 of the 50 occupants of the shelter agreed to take the vaccine. Gonzalez said he was one of the first to get it Tuesday to show residents that he has faith in it. He said he feels relieved to be vaccinated due to his underlying health conditions, and even the needle was not so bad.
“I don’t know if those needles are magic but I didn’t feel the pinch,” Gonzalez said, “I’m in a position with my immune system being compromised where it’s really good for me to take it. I have faith in God, but even with that if there’s something that promises us protection — why not get it?”
While some may question why the homeless population should get a priority, Gonzalez said that homeless people who test positive may not have a place to spend the night if COVID-designated hotels are filled. In the past two weeks, Gonzalez said six people tested positive at the shelter.
“To find them a placement for quarantine — the place they take them is usually a hotel — they are at full capacity most of the day,” Gonzalez said, “If there is not a place to…