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A Secret To The Success Of Vaccinating LA's Homeless? Giving Them Cell Phones

76-year-old Ray Carrington receives his first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Midnight Mission.
(Zoie Matthew/LAist)
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Public health officials administering COVID-19 vaccines to homeless people in Los Angeles say they're pleased with the rate of second doses given to the most vulnerable — but they caution there's more work to do to get the numbers higher.

L.A. County’s Housing for Health program focuses on people experiencing homelessness who have severe mental illness, significant substance use disorders or chronic health conditions.

Since February, more than 2,900 of their clients got the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. New data shows 77% got their second dose.

The program has been providing cell phones to ensure people complete the vaccination process, said Medical Director Dr. Heidi Behforouz.

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“Before we go for their second dose, we will call them to remind them that we're coming and text them,” she said. “We'll show up at the same time, same place. If at that point they aren't there, that's when we activate our outreach team members to locate them.”

Outreach at shelters and encampments has also helped many hesitant people become more comfortable getting the vaccine.

Some took a "wait and see" approach, observing and talking with friends, staff and medical teams about the shots and their effects before deciding to proceed, Behforouz said.

Another challenge is the low vaccine rates in the Black community and among men of color in general, she said. Her program is producing written materials and videos to address their concerns.

“A lot of individuals were asking for written information so that they could study it, but weren't interested necessarily in what was coming out of the CDC,” Behforouz said. “They were interested more in, 'What's the truth for my people?' and having some acknowledgement that it may be difficult to take at face value — [that] what the government or health authorities are saying is the right thing to do, given their historical, political, social lens.”

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Housing for Health and shelter leaders are also launching a program for people experiencing homelessness to be trained as "vaccine peer ambassadors" to share information and dispel misinformation about the vaccines, Behforouz said.

Earlier this year, UCLA epidemiologists found that unhoused L.A. county residents who contract COVID-19 are 50% more likely to die than the general public.