The Power of Advocacy in Vaccinating RI's IDD Population

By Sara Porcaro | Apr 13, 2021
COVID-19, Coronavirus, Social Distancing, Vaccine, Moderna, Pfizer, Disabilities, Rhode Island, Advocacy
URI College of Pharmacy Volunteers Loading Moderna Doses

The race to end the pandemic--first with masks, social distancing, and sheltering in place, and now with the ever-accelerating vaccine campaigns--is well underway. Here in Rhode Island, 25% of the population is already fully vaccinated, and there's been a focus on getting vaccinations to the individuals who are the most vulnerable: harder-hit areas of the state, people of certain age groups, and people of certain medical conditions. But of these groups, one population that is absolutely critical to protect--individuals with disabilities ages sixteen and older and their support professionals--has also had the opportunity to receive the vaccine, thanks to the activism from the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island (CPNRI) and the efforts of countless community volunteers. It's a historic moment, the COVID-19 pandemic--and Perspectives is grateful to everyone for their incredible work in protecting RI's I/DD population.

The Importance of Advocacy in the Pandemic

"It's been a huge amount of work and coordination to get private vaccine clinics set up for this population," says CPNRI Executive Director Tina Spears, "but it's been awesome. We're thrilled to have these clinics set up exclusively for individuals with disabilities and their support professionals."
Individuals with disabilities, as well as the professionals that have ensured their health and safety throughout the pandemic, have consistently tried to make their voices heard in the sea of confusion over the past year, especially in the wake of conversations around who should get medical intervention in resource-strained hospitals and what conditions increase the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. As Forbes points out, individuals in congregate care settings, like nursing homes, are at a much higher risk of having an outbreak due to their close capacity. Likewise, the American Psychological Association points to "unique stressors and challenges that could worsen mental health for people with disabilities," such as having a harder time finding medical supplies and experiencing higher levels of social isolation. That's why CPNRI's activism, and their collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of Health, has been so critical; without it, the wait for vaccines would've only put more individuals at risk of a variety of different health concerns.
"We've done things like Zoom cooking classes, hikes, and game days, but it's been tough; everyone's itching to get out," says Perspectives' Site Supervisor Adam Dunham, who works with individuals receiving residential supports. "But we've all had a great experience getting vaccinated, and it's made it so much easier to relax at home. Everyone's looking forward to getting out of the house as it warms up, too."
"Everything [individuals with disabilities] do has been changed by COVID-19. This vaccine is opening the world back up to them."
Virtual day services and telehealth supports have certainly softened the isolating impact of the pandemic, as individuals receiving supports from Perspectives and other agencies with virtual services still have the ability to bring friends together and explore, learn, craft, and more, but it isn't the same as seeing friends in person, going out to one's favorite restaurants, or working in the community. In fact, where countless individuals provided for their communities as essential workers, many others either quit their jobs or lost them due to the pandemic's affect on business and the risk involved in working in person. But with the vaccination campaign, many individuals like Dale, Nick and Sean, and others are once again able to go out, work, and engage with their communities with far less risk--a real weight off their shoulders.
One individual who participates in Self Directed Services, Nick, there at one of the final clinics with his father Bill, received his second vaccine and was proud to do so. "We learned about these clinics through Nick's case worker," says Bill, "and he wanted it, so it's good we were able to get it. These clinics ran really smoothly; we're grateful for it."
"Everything [individuals with disabilities] do has been changed by COVID-19," says Tina. "This vaccine is opening the world back up to them."

Making it Happen With Volunteer Manpower

It's no wonder why getting the vaccine early has been a priority for this population--and why so many peeople, including volunteers from the RI Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), URI's College of Pharmacy Faculty, local police, and professionals from the many provider agencies in RI, came together to make vaccinations a smooth process. The initiative relied entirely on volunteers, which is why the retired medical professionals of DMAT and the rotating professionals from Perspectives, the J. Arthur Trudeau Memorial Center, and more were so critical in ensuring people got in, got their vaccine, and got back home in timely manners. In each clinic, hundreds of people received vaccines, and across the eighteen clinics that ran over twelve weeks, over 5,600 individuals and support professionals were fully vaccinated.
"These clinics are amazing," says Director of Non-24 Hour Services Mary Lyons. "They're like a well oiled machine, and they've improved bit by bit over twelve weeks. Everyone who's been vaccinated is really looking forward to the summer months and seeing their friends and families again, thanks to the vaccine clinics."
Beyond the manpower needed to organize such an event, the setting was also important. For that, we're giving many thanks to the Kirkbrae Country Club, whose ballroom had just been renovated in March of 2020 for future events when the pandemic hit. With the bans on large gatherings and events, the space was shuttered for the foreseeable future, and that's why the country club's board members were more than happy to give back to their community by offering their unused space. It quickly became a place for medical professionals to set up efficient vaccine stations, as well as to give patients the six feet of space to safely wait for a fifteen minute observational period, and the country club also provided meals and other refreshments to the pharmacists, medical professionals, and other DMAT volunteers during the seven-hour clinics.
"The one thing we had was space," says Club Manager Mike Bradshaw. "It was a unanimous decision from the club's Membership Board to lend it to everyone for the clinics; we were happy to help in any way we could."
"[Kirkbrae] has been good to us," says DMAT Site Lead Jack. "Their hospitality has been incredible. Beyond that, all of the DMAT volunteers

Looking Past the Pandemic in 2021

"This effort exemplifies community," Tina wrote in a communication to CPNRI subscribers. "We came together and accomplished what many other states have not. We know many individuals are safe, and we will now begin to consider our future beyond the pandemic."
And the future looks bright. With the better weather, the increasing supply of vaccines, and the accelerated access for all Rhode Islanders to get the protection they seek, we stand as a statewide community ready to push forward and think about what comes next after COVID-19. This pandemic has been a moment for the history books from the very beginning, and the story only continues to develop--and hopefully, soon wind down to a close. We're forever grateful to CPNRI's incredible work in securing vaccines for one of Rhode Island's most vulnerable populations, as well as to every volunteer who came together to ensure everyone who wanted the vaccine had the opportunity to get it quickly and safely, and we hope everyone continues to stay safe throughout the rest of the pandemic.


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