A nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine at Kedren Health on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine at Kedren Health on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The newest vaccine to come to Michigan solves one of the logistical challenges in vaccinating some of those facing the highest risks.

MUSKEGON, Mich.—Thanks to an unexpected shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in early March, Muskegon County Health Department is preparing for an effort starting next week, to immunize unhoused people in the rural west Michigan county.

“We’re hoping [to start vaccinating the unhoused] the beginning of next week, Tuesday,” said Kathy Moore, public health director at the Muskegon County Health Department. “But the outreach to that population has been challenging, so we are working with three shelter facilities in Muskegon County.”

That Johnson & Johnson shipment meant the health department’s goal of reaching out to the unhoused was finally attainable. 

Challenges Vaccinating Unhoused Michiganders

The difficulty Moore faces now is figuring out how to get the vaccines to the unhoused residents of Muskegon.

“I wish I had a card and it could be a fast-pass, and somehow we could get this in their hands,” Moore told The ‘Gander. “Arrange for transportation if they need it, to get them to the clinic site and move them to the front of the line. They’ve been waiting long enough, but we just haven’t found a good process to reach them.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended prioritizing unhoused Americans in February. Unhoused populations are at especially high risk for diseases in general. Add to that a lack of address, internet access, or phone numbers, and an effort to prevent a disease’s spread through such an underserved community is extremely challenging to manage. 

While still in the planning phases, the health department has planned to work with local shelters to bring the vaccine into the community, and have selected specifically the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for reaching out to difficult-to-find communities like the unhoused because of its one-shot nature. 

And there’s an emerging model on the other side of the country for Muskegon to look to as it prepares for vaccinations next week. 

In Hawaii, the health department has partnered with outreach to the unhoused. Following a similar strategy to those Muskegon is planning, Hawaii took the vaccine to where those unhoused are. Shelters and encampments became vaccination sites, and advocates for the unhoused became ambassadors for the vaccine.

And like Muskegon, the efforts in Hawaii have focused on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

How Johnson & Johnson Changed Everything

Unlike Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which the health department is also stocked with, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine doesn’t require recipients return on a scheduled date which can be a burden for those without easy access to health care. 

“With the other two vaccines, the [Pfizer] and Moderna, it required a second dose, and that required trying to track and find people after,” Moore explained. “We thought the Johnson & Johnson would be the best procedure-wise.” 

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For them, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a lifesaver, literally. 

As Dr. Matt Longjohn explained at a live discussion hosted by The ‘Gander, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective at combating minor side-effects of the coronavirus, but its effectiveness against more serious symptoms of the virus is on par with the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which means that even though the Johnson & Johnson requires less logistical coordination it will be effective in protecting the unhoused in Muskegon County. 

And of course, Muskegon is working to vaccinate those who work regularly with unhoused Michiganders, to add an additional layer of protection to a vulnerable community. 

“We want to make sure that those individuals and volunteers reaching out to the homeless are vaccinated as well,” Moore said.