By Jason Villemez
PHILADELPHIA — Residents of the John C. Anderson LGBT-friendly Senior Apartments received their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine last week, with second doses scheduled for next month. A team of four from Mazzoni Center held a vaccine clinic in the community room of the JCAA building, with vaccinations starting around 10:00 a.m. and finishing up around 6:00 p.m.
Mazzoni Center Medical Assistant Supervisor Jasmine Santana, Director of Practice Management Devon Taylor, Director of Communications Larry Benjamin, and Executive Medical Officer Nancy Brisbon worked together to sign people in, administer the shots, and observe recipients for fifteen minutes afterwards. Ed Miller, who provides supportive services at JCAA as part of his role at William Way Community Center, handled the scheduling and was on site to help organize the 56 people who received the vaccine.
“It was wonderful to help our elders during a time that has been so very difficult for everyone,” Dr. Brisbon said. “We look forward to our next day for dose two. The vaccine is part of our path out of the pandemic. We all need to do everything we can to prevent this serious and too often deadly disease.”
The day came together after Miller learned that most JCAA residents, all of whom are low-income and elderly, had not been able to get the vaccine.
He then reached out to the Mazzoni Center for assistance. Dr. Brisbon, who serves as part of Mazzoni’s interim leadership team, promptly said yes, and the team worked on setting a date, securing vaccine doses from the city, and handling the logistics of using an off-site location. Brisbon said that having experience from administering the vaccine to Mazzoni staff and patients helped the day go smoothly. Miller echoed those sentiments.
“It was a privilege working with the Mazzoni Center,” Miller told the Philadelphia Gay News. “Everyone was so impressive and offered terrific guidance and every kindness.”
For his part, Miller, who works at JCAA two days a week, understood the importance of allaying residents’ concerns, especially amid all the confusion about vaccine eligibility and availability.
“Most of the residents know and trust me, and I wanted to make sure that everyone was notified and had answers to their questions. There’s a lot to be said for meeting people where they are. Scheduling the appointment time for each senior made it start to seem real for us, it was cool. Throughout the day seniors were expressing the tensions and fear they have been experiencing and the idea that the community had not forgotten about them. There were tears of joy and a palpable sense of relief. It was magnificent to be part of it. Really special.”
According to a recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control, LGBTQ people have a higher prevalence of illnesses that lead to severe COVID-19 outcomes, including asthma, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease and obesity. As many of those same illnesses are also prevalent in older adults, LGBTQ seniors are particularly at risk.
“Because of their sexual orientation,” the report states, “sexual minority persons experience stigmatization and discrimination that can increase vulnerabilities to illness and limit the means to achieving optimal health and well-being through meaningful work and economic security, routine and critical health care, and relationships in which sexual orientation and gender identity can be openly expressed.”
Older LGBTQ adults, after a lifetime of discrimination, also face higher disability rates and are less likely to have advocates such as family members or neighbors who can help with health-related matters.
“As we looked around and read stories of the trouble some elderly folks have been having obtaining the vaccine in general,” Benjamin said, “we really started thinking about our community. Our elder community members are not only at risk, they are also vulnerable and quite often invisible. We really felt it was important that they feel seen and cared for. We, after all, stand on their shoulders.”
JCAA residents Mary Groce and Suz Atlas, who have been together for 26 years, were among the first to receive shots at the vaccine clinic. The two have had to be even more careful during Covid-19 because Atlas has been undergoing treatment for cancer. As they received their first doses, they looked squarely at each other.
“We’ve been afraid to leave our apartment at all for almost a year now,” Groce told the Philadelphia Gay News, “and we were already almost fully quarantined before that because Suz was going through chemo… in other words, we were looking at each other this morning to share the joy and utter relief of the moment. At least now we’re one step closer to the end of the pandemic… Suz says she wanted to get up and dance after she got hers.”
The large space of the JCAA community room made it easy to safely conduct the vaccine clinic, with one half of the room sectioned off for administering the shots and the other half used for observation. Residents waited for their turn in a socially distanced line in the nearby hallway; all were wearing masks.
“It was important to do this vaccine clinic to ensure that members of the LGBTQ community had a safe and affirming space to receive their vaccine,” said Taylor, who handled sign-in, gathering insurance information, and filling out vaccination cards. “We made sure to fit the space to follow all safety protocols including occupation limits and observation spacing. To be able to provide this service was not only a joy to myself and the team but was also inspiring and humbling to see how much it meant to all the patients being vaccinated.”
Benjamin told the Philadelphia Gay News that the day went faster than anticipated since the large space allowed for more people to wait in observation than initially anticipated. Also, to ensure no doses were wasted due to no-shows, JCAA residents provided a backup list of people in the community who met city and CDC vaccine guidelines to receive the vaccine.
Santana, who administered the vaccines, was moved by the whole experience.
“It was my privilege to be able to use Mazzoni’s resources to vaccinate seniors and make an impact during this trying time in our community,” Santana told the Philadelphia Gay News. “The gratitude of the residents was felt and we look forward to many more opportunities to serve our community with our holistic approach.”
Across the country, most reactions to the Moderna vaccine have been mild, including those of the JCAA residents. Groce reported feeling slight arm soreness and tiredness, but she said both were worth the benefits of protecting her from Covid-19 and preventing further spread.
“We would encourage all LGBTQ seniors — and everyone else, for that matter — to get this vaccine,” Groce said. “Judging from the still very scary Covid statistics, we have some major catching up to do to stop this awful disease in its tracks. Suz and I look forward to the day we can finally emerge from this long and arduous hibernation. Today we took the first step.”
While the JCAA residents expressed gratitude for the Mazzoni Center team for putting on the clinic, the feelings were mutual.
“Our entire team are so grateful and proud we were able to help everyone at John C. Anderson Apartments get vaccinated,” Benjamin said. “Now that we have the basic model built out, we are looking at how we can do this for others in the community.”
Jason Villemez is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.