More than 150 men, women and children experiencing homelessness in El Paso got a shot at preventing the flu and lowering their risk of becoming ill with both influenza and COVID-19 this winter.
The University of Texas at El Paso partnered with El Paso Community College and the National Hispanic Nurses Association to administer flu shots to residents and volunteers at the Delta Welcome Center and the Opportunity Center for the Homeless on Oct. 13-14, 2020.
Donated by Walgreens, the influenza vaccine is essential to helping vulnerable homeless populations stay healthy during the winter season, especially since they have limited access to health care and other important resources, said Eva Moya, Ph.D., UTEP associate professor of social work in the College of Health Sciences.
“The flu takes advantage of individuals who are vulnerable or have underlying conditions,” said Moya, who spearheaded the H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, Prevention, Education) flu shot clinics with Guillermina Solis, Ph.D., UTEP associate professor of nursing.
“We know that members of the homeless or home free community traditionally have poor access to health care and many of them already have immunocompromised systems because of food insecurity or chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure,” Moya added.
The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. Although the flu shot does not protect against COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are many important benefits to getting the vaccine.
Among them, flu vaccines reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death, and save health care resources for the care of patients with COVID-19. In addition, individuals experiencing homelessness have a higher-risk for becoming infected with COVID-19 and influenza, the virus that causes the flu. The flu vaccine can lower their risk of co-infection.
“These (flu) vaccinations are critical to maintain the health of the homeless, even more so under the current COVID pandemic,” said John Wesley Martin, Opportunity Center deputy director.
Moya described the flu shot clinics as “mini versions” of UTEP’s H.O.P.E. fair, which usually takes place in the fall and spring semesters at the Opportunity Center. Dozens of UTEP health sciences, nursing and pharmacy majors join community partners to provide health care screenings and other services to people in need. However, this fall semester’s H.O.P.E fair was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
COVID-19 has created new challenges for people experiencing homelessness. The pandemic has made it more difficult for them to access shelter, food and health care. And because individuals who are homeless are more likely to have chronic illnesses, catching the flu is a serious concern.
In response to the pandemic, Moya and Solis enlisted community partners and volunteers from UTEP’s social work, pharmacy and nursing programs and the EdTech HPV project to help with the flu clinics.
Wearing face masks and latex gloves, volunteers administered 85 flu shots at the Delta Welcome Center located at the Hilos De Plata Senior Center in El Paso’s Lower Valley on Oct. 13. The City of El Paso opened the temporary shelter in April 2020 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population.
Run by the Opportunity Center, the Delta Center serves as the primary intake facility for all individuals who are homeless during this crisis. People are screened before entering the facility. They get tested for coronavirus and remain isolated until they receive their results. To maximize social distancing inside the facility, cots are placed six feet apart.
During the clinic, a pharmacist or a nurse practitioner administered the flu shots. Joined by a member from the social work department, they wheeled a carrito, or a cart in English, from cot to cot distributing the vaccine.
The following day, volunteers brought their carritos to the Opportunity Center in Downtown El Paso where they vaccinated 75 residents against the flu.
Maria Gutierrez, a student and intern in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program, helped residents fill out consent forms. She also gave out dignity packets filled with hygiene products and socks courtesy of community partners in Placitas, New Mexico, and Bombas apparel.
Despite the pandemic, Gutierrez was eager to help people in need.
“I like to be involved in the community,” said Gutierrez, who graduates in 2021. “The flu shot clinic was a new experience for me. I can observe how micro, macro, and mezzo levels get together to achieve a common goal, providing flu shots to homeless people. The experience with the flu shot clinic gave me the opportunity to learn and expand my professional skills and exposure to other aspects of my social work career.”
Moya and Solis are looking forward to resuming the H.O.P.E. fair during the spring semester. In addition to offering much-needed health services to hundreds of low-income and unsheltered residents, the health fair provides future health professionals such as Gutierrez valuable service-learning opportunities.
In the meantime, Moya and Solis will continue to work with community partners to find creative solutions to help the community’s vulnerable populations.
“We have not given up on H.O.P.E,” Moya said. “It is critical now more than ever that we provide these health services.”
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications