The lobby of the emergency homeless shelter in the old Ascension Church in Worcester — known as Hotel Grace — turned into a makeshift clinic Tuesday morning. Shelter guests sat behind temporary curtains, answered medical history questions and rolled up their sleeves to receive vaccines against the coronavirus.
Homeless shelters are among the congregate care settings where the vaccinations are being rolled out this week.
Steven Fontaine, 48, has been staying at Hotel Grace for two weeks and wanted to get the vaccine at his first chance.
"I was shocked that it came so fast, and it was a blessing, really," Fontaine said. "I jumped right on that."
Fontaine said he spent 10 months in jail for violating his probation on an assault and battery charge. He went straight from jail to the homeless shelter two weeks ago. He didn't catch COVID-19 behind bars, but he's still afraid of it.
"It was a little scary at first when I first got here," Fontaine said. "There was, like, eight people that had it just before I got here, and then three more the other night."
The risks became apparent again Tuesday, in the middle of the vaccination clinic. A doctor on site identified a shelter guest who had just tested positive. She was taken out of the shelter and brought to an isolation hotel as the vaccinations continued.
"It's absolutely brutal what all of these people have been through for the last 10 months," said Ben Potee, who was among several UMass Medical School students helping the city's health and human services commissioner, Dr. Matilde Castiel, administer the vaccines. "COVID makes everything harder, but it makes things really, really hard if your life is already difficult. And so I'm really glad the state of Massachusetts has decided to prioritize this group and to get the vaccine out to them as soon as possible."
For some at the shelter, it's taken convincing from people like Pastor Richie Gonzalez. He's executive director of Net of Compassion, the nonprofit that runs Hotel Grace.
"We got more than 75% of the people in the shelter taking the vaccine today. So to me, that was an amazing response," Gonzalez said. "A lot of them first was a little skeptical — even from the staff, there was a lot of the staff, they didn't want to take it because they [said], 'Oh, it's a new vaccine. We don't know how is that going to work yet. I'm just going to wait a little while.' "
Gonzalez helped encourage some by sharing his own story of getting the vaccine to protect himself. In recovery from a long battle with substance use disorder, Gonzalez is HIV-positive and has Hepatitis C. He said he believes that any potential risk of vaccine side effects is far outweighed by the risks COVID-19 presents.
After shelter guests and workers were vaccinated, remaining doses went to workers from a local soup kitchen and residents of a prison re-entry program. Bobby Hammond is one of those Dismas House residents, and was eager to come for a coronavirus vaccine.
"Because I thought it was important for me and the community," Hammond said. "I don't want to be spreading this around or even catch it, you know."
Hammond said he just got out of prison after serving 10 years for a robbery that stemmed from his addiction.
"Before this I was out on the streets, running around using drugs, and I no longer choose to live my life like that," Hammond said. "So I'm getting help for myself, and that's part of why I want to get this right here — the shot."
The city hopes to have upwards of 500 people living in adult, family and domestic violence shelters in Worcester vaccinated by the end of the week.
Health workers will return to each location 28 days after the first shots in hopes of finding people for their second doses.
Steven Fontaine and Bobby Hammond said no matter where they're living in a month, they'll be back at Hotel Grace to get the rest of their vaccine.
This segment aired on January 19, 2021.