Organizations work together to get homeless vaccinated

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A dog lies next to personal possessions underneath a tarp off Kamehameha Avenue recently in Hilo.


As the number of COVID-19 cases soars, Big Island organizations are working to get more homeless people vaccinated.

“Up until this current community spread, I think this past year has been pretty good to us, considering the situation across the globe,” said Brandee Menino, CEO of Hope Services Hawaii.

Hope Services has partnered with KTA Super Stores, West Hawaii Community Health Center, Premier Medical Group and Bay Clinic to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to the homeless community, Menino said.

KTA, for example, “partnered with us on the street and provided vaccinations,” she said earlier this month.

By mid-August, the grocery chain had administered 72 shots to individuals on the street and 20 in shelters.

Additionally, Menino said Premier Medical has been doing surveillance testing in Hope Services shelters across the island. With the widespread community transmission, testing now is conducted weekly.

Hope Services manages 150 shelter beds across six Big Island sites. On Aug. 13, there were 92 individuals in the shelters, of which only 47% were vaccinated, she said at that time, according to Menino.

“I think in the beginning, there was reluctance in trusting the vaccinations for most,” she said. “… With the heightened anxiety of what’s happening in our community, there’s definitely renewed interest to get vaccinated. Those who refused before are asking and willing to get it now.”

And the easiest way to get homeless individuals vaccinated is to bring the shots to them.

Both WHCHC and Bay Clinic do street outreach, Menino said.

“The expectation of them to walk into a clinic is not going to happen,” she said. “(We are) looking for partners willing to help us do that. These four partners have definitely showed up and (are) willing to do so on the streets and in our shelters.”

In East Hawaii, Bay Clinic has sent two-person teams to canvass places, mostly in Hilo, where the homeless tend to congregate.

CEO Kimo Alameda said teams from its COVID Clinic bring medical equipment and incentive bags that include gift cards individuals can use for food, as well as toiletries and other items.

In one week, Bay Clinic administered 15 vaccines, and there were plans to resume vaccination efforts this week.

Bay Clinic also has offered vaccinations at Salvation Army food distributions and has vaccinated 10 people at two events there.

“I’d say 50% are OK getting vaccinated, and 25% are skeptical, not sure,” Alameda said. The remaining 25% of individuals they meet hold “a different type of skepticism, mixed in with mental illness and substance abuse issues.”

COVID in the shelters

According to Menino, six residents at the West Hawaii Shelter have so far tested positive for COVID-19.

Hope Services assisted four of those individuals in its isolation units.

According to Menino, the first two COVID-positive individuals in the isolation units were medically cleared by the DOH and returned to the West Hawaii Shelter, while the remaining two are in the isolation units.

Two did not return to the shelter.

The organization manages two isolation units on Hawaii Island, a studio unit in Kona and a three-bedroom house in Hilo.

Two office spaces were cleared to create the isolation units in the West Hawaii shelter in order to separate COVID-positive individuals from other shelter residents, as recommended by the state Department of Health, Menino said.

One employee in Kona and two employees in Hilo also have tested positive.

But Hope Services has not yet encountered any homeless individuals on the street with COVID-19.

Menino said if they do, and the person does not want to isolate in a shelter but already is isolating in their own space or tent, Hope Services will visit them where they’re living, encourage them to stay in place and “just bring support to where they’re at.”

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