Providers work to vaccinate Anchorage homeless population as quickly as possible

Michael Maisake smiles after receiving his second COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Kavitha George/AKPM)

Since congregate shelters became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines last month, health care workers and homeless shelter coordinators have been working nonstop to get Anchorage’s 3,000-person homeless population vaccinated.

The Brother Francis Shelter recently held its second vaccination clinic. Staff made it a celebratory event with music and snacks while Southcentral Foundation providers gave out shots. 

By the end of the day, a few dozen guests were fully vaccinated, and a handful of others, like Brian Sharpe, had gotten their first dose. 

“I’m glad that option was there. My great grandmother lost her mom and dad in the [1918] flu epidemic. I’m not ready to die, you know what I mean?” he said with a laugh. “So I was thankful for the vaccine.”

Sitting on his bunk, Michael Maisake said he’s happy to be fully vaccinated now.

“Feels great! I think it’s a must-have,” he said.

Maisake said shelter guests felt the stress of the pandemic over the last year, as case numbers skyrocketed and new shelter restrictions were instituted to limit outbreaks among Anchorage’s unhoused population. 

“Hope, that’s the word that people carry now. You know? And that’s what I tell them, take that shot and we have hope,” Maisake said.

Shelter director Dave Rittenberg said they expected about 75-80% of their guests to be vaccinated by the end of the day. That’s a higher proportion than Brother Francis staff, about half of whom have gotten vaccines through their own providers. 

Rittenberg said staff and Southcentral spent a lot of effort on education, answering questions about the vaccine ahead of time. 

Brother Francis saw a major outbreak this fall, which resulted in multiple hospitalizations and at least one death. Many shelter residents are at high-risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Like anyone else, guests wanted to do their part to help bring the community out of the pandemic, Rittenberg said.

“The people that we serve here, they watch the news, they read the paper, they’re very in tune with what’s going on across the country and they have been following this just like anybody else has,” he said. “I think people are just ready to be out of this.”

Rittenberg said having a large proportion of staff and guests vaccinated makes the day-to-day of running the shelter a little less stressful.

“We’ve been playing defense for a very, very long — social distancing, wearing masks, all of those little things that we’ve all been doing. But to sort of go on the offensive and go after the virus with a vaccine is cathartic and just where we want to be,” Rittenberg said.

According to Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness data, about 3,000 people were counted homeless in the city this month. Heather Aronno, a spokesperson for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said almost 400 were reported vaccinated as of last week, but the actual number is likely higher. 

It can be difficult to locate people within a transient population for vaccinations, she said.

Aronno said case managers and shelter workers are trying to spread the word and dispel any misinformation around the vaccines. Right now, she said they’re focusing on getting vaccines distributed as quickly as possible.

“Just low hanging fruit,” she said. “We’re trying to aim for whoever is willing to take the vaccine and getting them access to it as quickly as possible. And then after that, we’ll have to start looking at if somebody is still hesitant to get the vaccine, what we can do to help them feel more comfortable.”

Moving quickly is particularly important while the weather is still cold, because people stay indoors and are often easier to locate for two shots. Aronno also said the federal Emergency Operation’s Center is discussing prioritizing Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people experiencing homelessness, since only one dose is required.