With Ryan Lehman leading the way, the Caring Foundation of Montana and its Care Van® program have been stopping by parking lots, campgrounds and shelters to offer COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness in the Helena area, as well as the region’s transient population.
Lehman, outreach coordinator for Helena’s Good Samaritan Ministries, goes trailer to trailer and tent to tent with the Care Van team to find his clients and explain the importance getting vaccinated. So far, about 50 people have been inoculated as a result of the partnership, he says.
“This is part of what I do,” says Lehman, whose nonprofit organization provides services to low-income residents and families. “People feel comfortable with me, and we were able to meet the needs of some clients. I really appreciate the Care Van team reaching out to help.”
In Montana, nearly 1,600 people are experiencing homelessness and at higher risk for COVID-19 infection. They tend to suffer chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and HIV, which increase their risks of developing severe illness or dying from COVID-19. Yet, homeless services often are provided in congregate settings like shelters, which could accelerate infection spread.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) is part of a vaccination coordination team that's working to make sure Montanans at highest risk of life-threatening COVID-19 infections have access to the vaccines. Montana is one of just two states that the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently recognized for providing equitable vaccine coverage.
More than 29% of all Montanans were fully vaccinated as of April 23, and all residents at least age 16 have become eligible. However, the state still has several areas with high community transmission rates.
The Care Van program, sponsored by BCBSMT, began partnering with the Lewis and Clark County COVID-19 Vaccination Group earlier this year to help inoculate residents. Since 2014, it has provided access to more than 22,000 free or reduced-cost vaccinations. BCBSMT in 2018 launched its nonprofit Caring Foundation of Montana to improve vaccination rates and offer other health services to rural and underserved Montana populations.
Care Van Coordinator Nathan Wellington says the collaboration with Good Samaritan and Lehman to help vaccinate people experiencing homelessness has been a success.
“Ryan (Lehman) has a lot of connections with these populations and our big focus was to provide equal access to vaccines and knock down barriers to access,” Wellington says. “Ryan has been invaluable on that front.”