Photo showing a medical professional wearing gloves, a face mask, and a face shield administering a shot into the arm of a patient
Photo courtesy of Steven Cornfield / Unsplash.com

D.C. Health partnered with the D.C. Housing Authority, Johns Hopkins Health System, and the United Medical Center to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to seniors in public housing properties beginning at the end of January.

But as the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) has started this rollout, private affordable housing programs for seniors have been struggling due to lack of federal support and technological barriers. This includes nonprofits that offer long-term affordable housing for seniors and similar programs. 

D.C. Health allocated at least 1,950 doses for the DCHA properties, and as of mid-February, 1,040 people have been vaccinated at 13 of DCHA’s 15 properties that house seniors, according to D.C. Health. This includes residents, staff, and other qualifying seniors. All scheduled first doses were complete as of mid-February, and DCHA is currently assessing interest in vaccination clinics at the two final properties.

Health care partners are setting up clinics at each residential property either in common areas of the building or a mobile unit. 

“The senior population is most susceptible to this virus and we want to do everything possible to protect them,” said DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett, in a press release. “Bringing medical staff directly to our seniors to administer this highly effective vaccine safely in their own communities is an easy way to eliminate any barriers or health disparities in serving this vulnerable population.”

D.C. also began distributing COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness in low-barrier shelters and Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals centers earlier this month. The D.C. Department of Human Services is collaborating with Unity Health Care, a nonprofit that offers medical services to people experiencing homelessness in D.C., to complete the rollout. 

[Read more: Vaccine rollout begins in DC shelters and PEP-V centers]

Still, technological and transportation barriers persist, according to public and government senior advocates who testified at a two-day hearing held by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health at the end of January.

Dwight Mayes, the director of housing management at the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging, focused his testimony on his application to the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care, a CDC program where participating pharmacies provide on-site COVID-19 vaccination services for residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and independent living centers. Organizations in the District register with D.C. Health to participate in this program.  

Mayes applied in January for the center’s D.C. property, Samuel J. Simmons NCBA Estates in Columbia Heights, to participate in the program. After over a month, he has received no confirmation of this registration. The pharmacy partnership program was announced in October 2020. When he applied, there was no indication the program was at capacity or past-deadline, he said. 

Snapshots of the CDC’s program page accessed via Archive.org show that on Jan. 5 the website featured information about how to sign up. But there was no specific deadline visible. The next available archive of the website is Jan. 19. In the Jan. 19 snapshot, the information about how to sign-up had been removed and new information stating which types of facilities were eligible for the program before enrollment closed had been added.

“Don’t just forget about us as affordable senior housing providers,” Mayes said in an interview. “Whether we missed the initial sign-up or not, I think there should be consideration to give some kind of focus on our group.” 

D.C. Health said in an email to Street Sense Media that conversations on expanding the vaccine rollout to seniors residing in properties not owned by DCHA are “ongoing.” 

The Samuel J. Simmons NCBA Estates houses 161 residents. In January, a survey was given to the community, and 106 responded indicating they wanted to be vaccinated — about 65% of residents, Mayes said.  

Mayes said the team has been assisting residents in applying for vaccine appointments online individually, but there have been many obstacles. Having an on-site clinic with the help of the D.C. and federal governments would reduce these barriers and allow vaccinations to be more of a “fluid” process, he said. 

Technical problems with D.C. Health’s vaccination page and phone system occurred Thursday and Friday as thousands of appointments opened for residents who meet specific eligibility requirements, such as having specific medical conditions, DCist reported. Issues included errors in the CAPTCHA verification and website crashes. 

Councilmember Vincent Gray tweeted his concerns about the technical issues and wrote he plans to address these problems at the D.C. Health performance oversight hearing Thursday, March 4.

At the hearing, Mayes asked the council to provide more clarity on the viability of the vaccine partnership program, as well. “It would help out not only our residents in that it would give them direct access to the vaccine,” he said in an interview, “it also would serve as a benefit to the community of Columbia Heights and that residence.”

Jessica Petro, the executive director of the senior affordable housing residence Sarah’s Circle, also testified at the hearing and spoke on the technological barriers and lack of assistance for elderly residents living independently. 

“‘Independent living’ can be a misnomer, because I think a lot of folks think people who live in an independent building and are a senior can do everything for themselves,” she said at the oversight hearing. “But oftentimes, that’s not the case.”

Petro recommended distributing vaccines at a “community-based site level,” similar to the pharmacy partnership program that Mayes applied to, where people can easily gather to address logistical issues with signing up for an appointment. 

Sarah’s Circle was able to take part in the pharmacy partnership, but this isn’t the norm, said Ilana Xuman, the executive director of not-for-profit senior service provider LeadingAge D.C. Senior affordable housing communities in the nonprofit sector have not been supported in the same way, she said.  

“These are people who … need that support,” Xuman said in an interview.