Boots On The Ground: Ithaca Clinic Brings Vaccinations Closer To Shelter Patients

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Vaccination sites have cropped up in malls, airports and churches around the Southern Tier. While they’re intended to be centrally located and accommodate thousands of doses each day, these sites still exclude a number of people without the means or tools to get there.

To get vaccines to people facing barriers to access, the Tompkins County Health Department is partnering with the REACH Project, by meeting them where they are located.

Samantha Stevenson, Director of Operations for REACH Medical, the non-profit’s Ithaca medical practice, said mass vaccination sites like the one at The Shops at Ithaca Mall can be unapproachable for those already marginalized by the health care system.

(Provided by Cayuga Health System Public Relations)

“Even though I know the intention of the mall vaccine site is not to be high-threshold, for certain populations it still is,” Stevenson said.

REACH serves anyone that traditional health care settings fail to provide adequate care for, including people who use substances, residents experiencing homelessness, and transgender and LGBTQ folks.

Many of these patients lack the resources getting the COVID-19 vaccine requires, such as time to refresh online registries or get to a clinic. They may not have access to computers for use when signing up, or transportation to a vaccination clinic.

But Stevenson also stressed a less tangible resource: trust. Some of REACH’s patients distrust medical professionals, she said, because of past trauma and discrimination in health care settings.

“I think I can confidently say that our patients aren’t going to trust a stranger giving them a vaccine that they’re already afraid of,” Stevenson said.

Large vaccination sites in public places can be stressful and anxiety-inducing experiences for some of REACH’s patients, especially when it’s run by unfamiliar faces.

“To be quite honest, if a health department nurse or a hospital nurse went to a homeless shelter or an encampment, the chances of us getting people willing to be vaccinated would be lower,” echoed Frank Kruppa, Director of the Tompkins County Health Department.

Kruppa said the health department doesn’t have the same personal relationships with marginalized residents that the three-year-old REACH Project does. For that reason, Stevenson said REACH’s partnership with the county in the vaccination process is crucial.

In February, REACH Medical’s staff vaccinated 13 people residing in St. John’s shelter in Ithaca with an allocation of doses from the health department. Anyone who lives or works in a homeless shelter is eligible to be vaccinated in New York.

This week, The Tompkins County Health Department gave the clinic 20 more first-round doses to administer. The shots are part of a wholly local initiative, unlike the frequent pop-up clinics, which are directed by the state.

Samantha Stevenson of REACH Medical says there’s a deep distrust of the health care system among the pratice’s patients. That can be a barrier to vaccination. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

Kruppa said the partnership with REACH began earlier in the pandemic with COVID-19 testing in outreach settings.

“They have a history of doing what we affectionately call street medicine. They’re able to go to people where they are,” Kruppa said. “We’ve had that partnership for a while now, so moving to vaccination was really just the next natural step.”

Stevenson said REACH aims to provide compassionate, harm reduction-informed care without barriers. To do so with vaccinations, they put boots on the ground.

“We’re just bringing the vaccinations to them in a very low-threshold manner,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re underinsured or if they’re uninsured, they’re still getting the vaccination.”

A temporary shelter sits behind a strip mall in Ithaca, NY. (Celia Clarke/WSKG)

Stevenson said REACH plans to vaccinate people living in Ithaca’s encampments and motels, as well as REACH’s patients in other counties. She said they hope to soon expand outreach vaccinations to Broome County, where the clinic sees roughly 450 patients in medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders. Doing so depends on the vaccine allocations Broome government officials can earmark for REACH’s patients since doses given by one county can not be brought to another.

In Tompkins County, Kruppa said health officials are considering introducing a mobile clinic to make vaccinations accessible.

About 15 percent of residents there have received at least one dose of the vaccine.