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Treating The Most Vulnerable This Flu Season Means Taking Flu Shots To The Streets

Stephanie Kuo
Alicia Coomes gives Michael Houston a flu shot at the roving flu clinic station, set up to help Fort Worth's homeless.

Flu season has been especially severe this year in North Texas. Earlier this month, the Walgreens flu index ranked Dallas-Fort Worth the seventh most active metropolitan area in the country, prompting area hospitals to push flu prevention more than usual.

But those reminders can often miss the most vulnerable in the community – so a roving flu clinic in Fort Worth is closing the gap.

North Texas has finally thawed from weeks of frigid temperatures – and the outreach team at John Peter Smith Hospital has hit the streets to give as many flu shots as possible to Fort Worth’s homeless. Nurses have set up a flu station at Unity Park, a small plot of land managed by the Feed by Grace Ministry, where many of the city’s homeless congregate on Saturday mornings.

Michael Houston was first in line for a shot because he cares a lot about his health.

“Being out here on the streets, you have to – because [there are] a lot of germs. There’s a lot of people coughing and getting sick so you try to stay healthy the best ways you can,” Houston said, unflinching as the needle pierced his arm.

“You did it already? I didn’t ‘even feel that!” he said to Alicia Coomes, a registered nurse at JPS.

For Houston, and many who live on the streets, flu shots and a lot of other health resources aren’t easy to come by.

“A lot of us out here can’t afford to get that done. We don’t have transportation or the money,” he said. “So for them to come out here and do that is godsend to me.”

Credit Stephanie Kuo / KERA News
Unity Park, run by Fort Worth's Feed by Grace, is open Saturday mornings for the homeless to enjoy some free, unstructured recreational time.

This particular clinic is part of the JPS Care Connections program, which strives to make health care as easy and accessible as possible for the homeless in Fort Worth.   

“People that experience homelessness, and specifically the folks we target, are the ones who sleep outside. So we have to really go to the places they are,” said Joel Hunt, a physician assistant and the Care Connection’s program director. “So we take it to their camps, and we try to go to the places where they might get services – like today where they’re getting a meal – and try to catch them wherever they are.”

On top of that, this roving clinic unburdens the hospitals, which have felt the weight of an active flu season this year. JPS alone reported nearly 400 people visited its emergency department in December. Dr. Jeffrey Tessier, an infectious disease specialist at JPS, said even that’s a conservative estimate.

“There were probably more like 800 cases that presented to the hospital and got tested, but because the test is only 50 percent sensitive, it would’ve only picked up half of those – and that’s assuming everyone got tested,” Tessier said.

By mid-January, the hospital had already counted 341 new cases. Meanwhile, dozens of North Texans have died from the flu – at least eight of them in Tarrant County.

Joel Hunt, with JPS Care Connections, said roving clinics and street medicine not only help divert non-life-threatening symptoms from an already overburdened ER, but they also help prevent the flu and other diseases from spreading among a homeless population that has to sleep in close quarters and brave harsh temperatures outside.

Credit Stephanie Kuo / KERA News
Ronnie Kay Baker-Lilly hates shots, but says she's at the JPS roving clinic because getting vaccinated for the flu is a step in the right direction.

“It improves the individual, the patient’s health, and it’s better for the health care system,” Hunt said. “And then I think the biggest part is it’s just great for our community to have people who are healthier, [who] can try to get back to work, get reunited with families. That’s our whole goal, our whole perspective.”

That’s why getting a flu shot, for some, means much more than physical wellness.

“You don’t want sickness to take over – and it will. If people don’t get the flu shot, they’ll pass it on and pass it on. And you can’t move forward if you’re sick,” said Ronnie Kay Baker-Lilly.

She’s afraid of shots, but showed up at the flu clinic because moving forward is exactly what she wants to do. She’s been homeless for three years, struggling with drug addiction, away from her family. While volunteers held her hands, distracting her from the needle, Baker-Lilly shed a few tears.

"I want to see my daughter,” she said. “I want my life back, and I needed a flu shot. So I’m taking the next right step.”

JPS staffers running this roving clinic hope to make simple health care decisions a little easier for the nearly 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Fort Worth area – decisions that can and often do fall to the wayside when shelter and even a meal aren’t certainties.

The roving flu clinic will make its next stop at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth on Thursday, Jan. 25.

Former KERA staffer Stephanie Kuo is an award-winning radio journalist who worked as a reporter and administrative producer at KERA, overseeing and coordinating editorial content reports and logistics for the Texas Station Collaborative – a statewide news consortium including KERA, KUT in Austin, Houston Public Media and Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.