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Breaking down barriers to vaccination: Getting shots in arms is a shared mission for these CNN Heroes

By Kathleen Toner, CNN

Covid-19 vaccines have put the end of the pandemic in sight, but success depends on getting shots into arms. Three CNN Heroes are working to bring these life-saving measures to populations who might otherwise be overlooked.

Dr. Jim Withers delivers medical care to homeless people through Operation Safety Net, a program he started through his health system, Pittsburgh Mercy. Now, he is bringing the vaccine to them as well.

“Driving to a site or making appointments online … none of this is possible for folks who are living on the street,” said Withers, a 2015 CNN Hero. “You really have to go to where someone is and cut down those barriers.”

That’s what Withers and his team have been doing since the start of the pandemic — bringing testing, masks, soap and hand sanitizer to the people they serve. They also had tents and sleeping bags for anyone who needed to isolate but didn’t want to go to the hospital.

“We knew that people in the street die at 10 times the rate of the average population, and so they have a lot of risk factors,” he said. “It turned out over time that … those sleeping outside actually had a low rate of Covid. And so we tried to prevent the disease from coming to them.”

For him, the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been a game changer.

“(It’s) very portable — very appropriate for our population when you might have a lot of trouble finding someone later on (to administer a second dose),” Withers said.

He estimates that his group has vaccinated 50 to 60 people at Operation Safety Net’s shelter and maybe a dozen more on the street. Bringing this protection to this vulnerable population gives Withers great satisfaction.

“When you provide something and can save a life, and the lives of people that they come in contact with, it’s a really unique and powerful feeling,” he said.

A welcome refuge for vaccinating ‘an invisible population’

Dr. Wendy Ross, a pediatrician, was honored as a CNN Hero in 2014 for her work advocating for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Now, as director of Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity in Philadelphia, she’s making it easier for them to get vaccinated.

“A lot of them get easily overwhelmed in crowds. They have a lot of sensory issues, they tend to be very anxious in new experiences,” Ross said. “We reduce that stress by having a very low-stimulus environment … We just sort of slow down the pace and make it more relaxed.”

For those who are neurodiverse, Ross’ sensory-friendly clinic is a welcome refuge. There’s more space between appointments, which means less waiting in line, and the office has special seating, fidgets and even sunglasses available to help people stay calm. Trained vaccinators have strategies to help the process go smoothly.

But these accommodations aren’t just about comfort. Ross conducted a study that showed that people with intellectual disabilities face a greater risk of Covid-19.

“What we discovered was that having an intellectual disability was the number one risk factor for getting Covid and the second risk factor — only below age — for dying from Covid,” she said. “This is an invisible population and our goal is to make them visible and cared for adequately.”

Ross has resources available on her office’s website to help neurodiverse individuals prepare for vaccinations and other Covid-related issues. She also asked a focus group of young adults with intellectual disabilities what people vaccinating them should know, and she later turned this into a video PSA with the Special Olympics.

Dawn Powell had concerns about getting her 16-year-old son Anthony vaccinated, because in addition to having autism he had a lot of anxiety about getting a shot. Ross and her staff had to try a few times before they were successful, but Powell was grateful for their efforts.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen … but they did it,” she said. “As a mom, it means everything … When we go to regular clinics, they kind of give up on the first try.”

Ross says that a number of people have told her they would not have been able to get their children vaccinated anywhere else.

“Getting the vaccine to this population absolutely is saving lives,” she said. “I just feel that everyone matters and has value and that everyone should be included.”

Hands-on support for vaccination sites, large and small

Jake Wood has mobilized veterans through his nonprofit, Team Rubicon, to help vaccinate their fellow Americans across the country. Ensuring equal access has always been a priority for his team.

“We wanted to make sure that an American’s zip code didn’t determine the ease with which they had access to a Covid-19 vaccine,” said Wood, a 2012 CNN Hero.

The group has helped organize vaccination efforts in all 50 states — from huge drive-in sites to smaller school clinics to mobile vaccine units that travel to remote rural areas. Volunteers also worked to vaccinate people in the Navajo Nation, which has been devastated by the pandemic.

Additionally, Team Rubicon joined forces with others to form the Veterans Coalition for Vaccinations, which coordinated a large network of volunteers nationwide. They also encouraged people to get vaccinated through an advertising campaign inspired by the famous Rosie the Riveter poster. The title? “A Call to Arms.”

“(It) was really this harkening back to that imagery and that mentality that we took during World War II asking all of America to rise up to support this wartime effort,” Wood said. “And that’s really what this vaccination campaign has been. It’s been a modern day medical wartime effort to get doses into the arms of Americans.”

They’re each working in their own way, but all of these CNN Heroes are striving for the same goal: to make sure everyone gets access to the vaccine and is treated with the respect they deserve.

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