By Kendra Sitton
83-year-old Floyd Flagg received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on the morning of Monday, March 22 as part of a partnership between the Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD) and Family Health Centers.
Flagg said his arm felt fine after receiving the vaccine. The only hesitation he had in receiving the vaccine was mixed messages doctors gave him about whether he needed it after previously fighting a case of COVID-19.
The frail Navy veteran explained that he “had the virus but [is] still kicking.”
He hopes others get the vaccine as well because people are dying and many people have lost their jobs.
“Just get back to normal,” Flagg said.
For Flagg, receiving the vaccine came after a year of chaotic moves. He was admitted to Grossmont Hospital with COVID-19 for six days. After being released, he stayed in one of the county-funded hotels until he tested negative for the virus. At that point, he was moved to the mass shelter at the San Diego Convention Center before finally transferring to the Veterans Village transitional housing.
An area in the transitional housing building was converted into an open area to administer the vaccine for the residents and a few alumni of the program who are enrolled in the VA (Veteran’s Affairs). Even an unsheltered veteran was able to walk into the clinic to receive the one-dose vaccine. The vaccination center being on site meant residents could easily access the vaccine and only have to make one trip before being fully inoculated. The effort from the VA, Family Health Centers and Veterans Village are part of an ongoing effort to ensure that vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by the virus also receive the vaccine.
“The vulnerable population deserves the best of the best. So if we know this is one time and go, then this is the population that needs that,” said Lisa Misraje, the director of development at VVSD.
An army veteran who was vaccinated at the site, Donnie Bryant, said he was curious how the day would go because he had witnessed the chaos of the Petco Park mass vaccine site. He found the check-in process to be simple with almost no line.
“They said only one dose so that’s even better,” Bryant said. “It’s convenient.”
Family Health Centers has been critical in vaccinating vulnerable communities. San Diego City Council President Jen Campbell, who is also a doctor, partnered with the organization and nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) to administer vaccines to residents in transitional housing.
Early in March, the CEO of PATH, Joel John Roberts, called on Governor Gavin Newsom to prioritize the state’s 280,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for people experiencing homelessness.
“There are many barriers to accessing a second vaccine dose for an individual that is unhoused. This population often lacks transportation and cellular devices to schedule an appointment and can be very hard to reach. Even for people who are stably housed, accessing a second shot has proven difficult,” Roberts said.
For VVSD, the vaccine distribution was a festive occasion. Staff applauded the veterans after they received the inoculation from COVID-19 and the check-in area was filled with balloons and donuts. Misraje said that although she is a single mother of six, she decided to purchase a new dress for the event. VVSD intake coordinator Danelle Harrington was dancing around because of her excitement.
“It’s exciting to see them all come in and some off the streets, some of our alumni that have already graduated from this program from like 10 years ago showed up today,” said Harrington.
Doubts about the vaccine
Despite the joy of the day, it did come with roadblocks. The center had 112 doses of the vaccine but only 26 residents signed up ahead of time. Harrington and an official with the VA went door to door to make sure residents were aware of the event. While some were already vaccinated because of their age, many remained wary of the vaccine and declined to receive it. Harrington said residents cited religious reasons, never receiving a flu shot either and conspiracy theories about being injected with a chip as common reasons they declined. The official with the VA tried to educate them on the vaccine but Harrington said many remained unswayed.
Emily Carpenter, a San Diego City College nursing student and president of the Nursing Students’ Association, said at Family Health Center’s Mission Beach vaccine distribution site, anyone apprehensive about the vaccine was assuaged by hearing them talk about it in person.
“I think a lot of people, just explaining the CDC guidelines, and them getting to hear that from an actual person as opposed to reading it on our website, helps make them feel a little more comfortable. I think for some people it’s just a little difficult to look at the website and feel comfortable with that and just hearing it from an actual person who was in the community feels a little bit better,” Carpenter said in a phone interview.
Alongside 30 other SD City College students, Carpenter has been administering the vaccine with Family Health Centers as part of their clinical hours to graduate as an RN. While they were stationed in Mission Beach, many other students administered the vaccine in Southeastern San Diego, which has been hit hard by the virus. For students, administering the vaccine has reminded them why they want to get into a helping profession in the first place.
“It’s been really rewarding and it’s been super humbling to be able to administer vaccines to people of San Diego who have been having a really hard time either finding somewhere to get vaccinated or feeling like they’ve been isolated for the last year,” said Larissa Johnson, vice president of the Nursing Students’ Association. “People are so grateful and it’s just been a really cool experience to be able to witness that and just be a part of it.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.