How to Create More Inclusive Vaccination Sites

PGN talked with a Colorado nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to vaccination for autistic people.

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Although autistic adults have high rates of COVID-19 vaccination, they are still at higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Adults with disabilities are also more likely to report barriers to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a CDC study.

Public Good News recently spoke to Shannon Phen, director of programs at the Autism Society of Colorado, to learn about their strategies to make vaccine sites more accessible and inclusive in their state. Here’s what Phen said.

PGN: How does your organization work to improve vaccine equity in your communities?

Shannon Phen: The intention behind creating sensory-friendly vaccine clinics is having the availability and space for individuals to be themselves. 

For example, we have sensory-friendly and sensory-overloaded rooms. We try to make the vaccination experience accessible and less crowded because that can be very overwhelming for individuals. But also, I think it just depends on the individual and what their needs are. And we ask them beforehand.

We have a lot of autistic families and individuals that don’t want to come out in public because they feel like they’ll be judged. 

It’s a huge step for them to just come out and get vaccinated. So we acknowledge that, and we praise them. We give them stickers, colorful Band-Aids to show them that it’s okay to be who you are. 

PGN: What are some ways in which you meet individual needs or provide accommodations?

S.P.: We have worked with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a couple of the counties: Arapahoe County as well as Adams County. We work with their clinical staff in order to provide sensory kits as well as sensory vaccine training. 

Within the kits, there are free headphones, stress balls, and something called a ShotBlocker—it’s like a little, yellow upside down “U” with little pricklies to put against the skin. Between that “U” is where you insert the needle. The ShotBlocker simulates the needle and helps desensitize the person getting the vaccination.

We also have been given the opportunity to purchase Buzzys for clinics. Buzzys come with an ice pack in the shape of a bee. It vibrates, alleviates the pain, and helps distract from getting the vaccination on the other arm, for example. 

PGN: Have you seen an increase in vaccination rates in the communities you serve?

S.P.: I used to be an epidemiologist for the state of Texas and, in general, their vaccination push is very different compared to Colorado’s vaccination push. 

We don’t just target or focus on the autism community. When we host sensory-friendly vaccine clinics, we invite everyone—anyone can come and get vaccinated. 

Some people who have a high fear of needles can also use these devices, and it helps with the needle anxiety. We also have senior citizens, as well as little kiddos. Everybody has different sensory needs and sensory overloads. I think just being able to have vaccines everywhere and have these resources and tools available to use—that’s what vaccine equity is all about.

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This article first appeared on Public Good News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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