Flagstaff's homeless community and COVID-19 Vaccines

At its surface, one of Flagstaff’s most vulnerable communities seems to be discounted when it comes to vaccination priority. However, the issue at hand runs much deeper than the city turning a blind eye.

NAU health sciences professor Katherine Allen compared the situation the city is facing to vaccinate the homeless population to the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Coconino County and across the United States.

“We’re on a ship at sea. 10 people have fallen overboard, 7 cannot swim and are drowning, and we have only 1 life jacket,” Allen said. “Who gets the life jacket?”

Allen said the county is currently adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  guidelines when it comes to vaccination phases.However, the county has not made it a priority to vaccinate the homeless population. 

“Coconino County is following the CDC’s phases and are currently vaccinating people in Phase 1b,” Allen said. “Next will be people in Phase 1c, who have underlying conditions or are adults living in congregate conditions. Homeless shelters do count as congregate living conditions. Thus, people who have no home of their own are in Phase 1; they are a priority group.”

Allen goes on to explain the U.S. has a long way to go before reaching herd immunity.

“Every Phase 1 person vaccinated inches us toward herd immunity,” Allen said. “But we have a long way to go to reach it. At least 247 million people vaccinated altogether, to be exact, but only about 56 million doses have been sent out so far, according to the CDC.”

Flagstaff Shelter Services has been providing shelter and hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness during this time. As of February, the organization is utilizing three hotels in an effort to provide resources to this population. One of these hotels is used for members of the homeless community who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

During a Flagstaff City Council meeting Feb. 2, Flagstaff Shelter Services executive director Ross Altenbaugh outlined the situation her organization is facing during the pandemic, noting the shelter has grown to maximum capacity.

Altenbaugh explained Coconino County has not prioritized this group of the population beyond Phase 1c.

“There has been a rise of people who are in need of more medical care because of COVID, as well as housing and health care,” Altenbaugh said. “We have tried advocacy efforts to move forward, but they are not a priority.” 

Despite efforts to advocate for prioritization of this group, tensions between the city and the Flagstaff Shelter Services may play a role in the city’s hesitancy to move forward with their requests.

During the meeting, Mayor Paul Deasy called out Altenbaugh regarding the multitude of emails and phone calls from the community his office had received concerning the feelings of mistreatment and discrimination against the city’s homeless population. 

Deasy went on to express his anger and frustration surrounding the matter, bringing up a death threat aimed at his chief of staff and a brick thrown at Deasy’s home. 

“I feel very strongly that the death threats toward your chief of staff and a brick being thrown at your home is not in direct correlation with what we are doing wrong,” Altenbaugh said.

Councilmember Adam Shimoni, Vice Mayor Becky Daggett and other councilmembers defended Altenbaugh and the organization, noting the difficulties Altenbaugh must be faced with during the pandemic. Councilmember Austin Aslan went a step further by suggesting an executive session, a motion which was unanimously accepted by the rest of the council. 

Moreover, Deasy said he felt uncomfortable about the possibility of raising the level of funding to Flagstaff Shelter Services at this time.

Deasy later drew back on his previous comments and apologized for his conduct in the meeting.

As Allen previously said, it could still be a couple months before the homeless population receives their doses of the vaccine in Flagstaff, and slow distribution from the federal government has not aided in improving priority for this group.

“We would probably need about 500 doses to vaccinate all the homeless people in the greater Flagstaff area,” Altenbaugh said. 

There is still no word as to when vaccine distribution will start to ramp up across the country, and in response, Coconino County submitted a plea for residents to contact state representatives to demand more vaccines be delivered to the county.

As of Feb. 17, the U.S. reached over 488,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.