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Sonoma County launches campaign to vaccinate homeless people

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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Inside a community hall beneath the redwood canopy at Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds near Camp Meeker, a couple dozen homeless people sheltering at the Christian retreat during the coronavirus pandemic trickled in Thursday to be vaccinated.

Craig Petersen, 56, who has lived there for the past month, rolled up his shirt sleeve to receive his single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

“Now you’re all vaccinated,” said a registered nurse, after pricking his right arm.

The mobile vaccination clinic that stopped near Occidental was part of an ongoing campaign by local health organizations to inoculate Sonoma County’s homeless population where they reside ― first at shelters, and soon at encampments throughout the area.

County health leaders say the effort is crucial to protecting a community already facing grave health issues and more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID-19. They also point out that homeless people often transition between temporary living situations ― whether a shelter, a friend’s apartment or an outdoor camp ― potentially causing broader spread of the virus.

“It’s just the nature of that disparity that warrants an equitable distribution,” said Chris Stewart, medical director of Santa Rosa Community Health’s Brookwood campus. “Otherwise, we’re going to have more people dying in this population and we’ll have more spread.”

The homeless vaccination campaign, which began last week, is spearheaded by Santa Rosa Community Health, Sonoma County Medical Association and Santa Rosa-based Fox Home Health.

Last week, the groups vaccinated about 150 people at Sam Jones Hall, Nightingale and The Living Room shelters in Santa Rosa. This week, they aim to immunize an additional 100 people at shelters including Alliance Redwoods and Los Guilicos Village in east Santa Rosa.

The organizations will focus on shelters over the next few weeks before setting up sites specifically for people living outdoors or in their vehicles.

“The first and logical place to start was with the sheltered population because they live in congregant settings (where the virus can spread), and we know where they are,” said Dr. Loie Sauer, a Santa Rosa surgeon helping the Sonoma County Medical Association launch the vaccination sites for homeless.

A one-day count of the local homeless population in 2020 found 2,745 unhoused people living in Sonoma County. Of that number, 1,043, or 38%, were living in shelters.

The county health department does not keep track of how many homeless people are vaccinated. But local health leaders estimated hundreds already have been inoculated at county-run vaccination sites, such as the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. The state made all homeless people over the age of 16 eligible for vaccines starting March 11.

One source for vaccines for the mobile inoculation campaign is a federal program run by the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is sending doses to health clinics across the country to vaccinate local homeless populations. Fox Home Health, a state-designated vaccine provider, is also allocating vaccine doses.

Santa Rosa Community Health is in charge locally of distributing the vaccines from the federal government to homeless individuals. The clinic expects to continue receiving doses on a weekly basis for as long as there’s demand.

A main benefit of the program is that it uses the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that require two. That means homeless people, who often move in and out of temporary housing or between various encampments, don’t have to worry about returning to a specific site to get a second shot.

“I’m a lot happier that it’s just one shot and not two,” said Petersen, who received his shot at Alliance Redwoods. “Depending on how much time in between shots, I might be leaving (the shelter), and then how would I get the second one?”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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