‘Phased distribution plans in some states do not name population as a priority while CDC recognizes it as high risk
As many as 18 states in the US have not specifically prioritized the homeless community in their plans for distributing Covid-19 vaccines, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizing the population as particularly high risk when it comes to the virus, a study has found.
Research conducted by the National Academy for State Health Policy, a non-partisan forum of policymakers, focused on people living in homeless shelters and found that the phased distribution plans in such states as Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota did not explicitly name that community as a priority population.
Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, explained that homeless people often don’t have access to medical care, necessities for protection against the virus, such as masks, nor the ability to quarantine if infected. They may also have such underlying conditions as diabetes and asthma, which could put them at higher risk for severe illness from the virus.
“If we leave up to 3.5 million people – because that’s how many people are homeless in America – that many people being left without vaccinations or waiting until the very end, we’re not going to get through this pandemic, it’s going to continue to perpetuate itself, because we have so many people that haven’t gotten the needed care,” he told the Guardian.
The academy’s findings initially came from the plans each state submitted to the CDC last fall, but have since been updated based on the latest guidance on each states’ website, most recently on 26 February.
The chart includes such states as Montana and South Dakota, which prioritize groups such as individuals in congregate settings and those with high-risk medical conditions, but do not specifically highlight the homeless population. It also includes Louisiana, which, while its website states that those who work in homeless shelters will be eligible for a vaccine in its next phase, does not highlight people experiencing homelessness.
Jill Rosenthal, the senior program director at the National Academy for State Health Policy, said it is worth noting that with federal guidelines and vaccine supplies continuing to evolve, every state has seen some movement in their distribution plans. And as such, more changes could be coming.
Wisconsin, for example, initially did not highlight the homeless community in its distribution phases, and now has added those living in homeless shelters and transitional housing, Rosenthal explained.
Last week, Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, also announced that the state would be including individuals experiencing homelessness in the next Covid-19 vaccine distribution phase, which starts at the end of March.
Currently, Rosenthal explained, only a handful of states have actually started vaccinating people who are experiencing homelessness, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. She said it will be important for those states that haven’t started this work “to learn from other states that are already vaccinating this population about best practices, so that they can more effectively reach those in shelters and those living on the street”.
Last week, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council sent a letter to governors and state and local health authorities highlighting the urgency of giving “priority status to people experiencing homelessness, especially individuals living in homeless shelters, encampments and other congregate settings”.
It added: “Failure to immediately prioritize people who are homeless leaves a highly vulnerable population unprotected, compounds racial inequities, and undermines public health efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19 in local communities.”
Don L Gardner, 63, has been homeless in Washington DC for the past month and a half, after losing his job as a shoe repairman. He is diabetic and asthmatic and stays with his mom or in his car because he’s wary about staying in shelters due to the pandemic. He said he is still waiting to get the vaccine and would like to see others experiencing homelessness prioritized when it comes to this distribution.
He said: “The homeless population is a forgotten population, an invisible population and they should be recognized as human beings and recognized as a population that needs that vaccine because they’re dying off just like the other populations are.”