Hundreds of adults with autism and their caretakers have received COVID vaccinations, thanks to a clinic coordinated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) and the Philadelphia Eagles.
The all-day session took place this past Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, guided by more than 40 staff from CSS’s Divine Providence Village (DPV), a residential care facility for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Located in Delaware County, DPV is part of CSS’s larger Communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence, which provide a continuum of care to persons with IDD.
One thousand first jabs of the Moderna vaccine were distributed at the March 27 clinic, with clients scheduled to return April 29 for their second doses. Online registration for the shots was coordinated by DPV in conjunction with the Eagles Autism Foundation, which arranged for use of the stadium and promoted the outreach among the area’s autism organizations.
A vaccine provider since January (with 7,000 full doses already given out), DPV created a “sensory-friendly experience” that included quiet rooms, visual schedules depicting the vaccination process and story-based interventions, or narratives that help explain social situations to persons with autism.
“It’s very calm, with social distancing and plenty of space,” said DPV administrator Jean Calvarese-Donovan. “We’re keeping it flowing.”
Some of the nine nurses present even brought vaccinations to the cars of those with mobility or anxiety issues, she added.
“While everyone’s needs have been different, we’ve been able to meet them,” said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. “We pulled this together in two weeks. We had the support of the state, the city and obviously the Eagles; DPV is a well-oiled machine, and we jumped in to say, ‘How can we help you take it to the next level?’”
DPV nursing director Angela Babcock (Hammond’s classmate at then-Archbishop Prendergast High School for Girls) said the autism community “deserves specialists” in receiving COVID vaccinations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 5.4 million U.S. adults, or 2.21% of the country’s population, has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Such individuals are at greater risk of COVID complications due to a range of accompanying physical and behavioral challenges, as well as decreased access to therapy under pandemic restrictions.
“The special needs population has a three times higher incidence of getting critically ill or passing away from this disease,” said DPV medical director Dr. Brian Friedrich, who was on hand to administer the Moderna doses.
Yet a number of barriers have stalled vaccination rollouts to the IDD communities and their caregivers. On Monday, over a dozen disabilities advocacy groups, backed by three Philadelphia City Councilmembers, sent a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley requesting access to the shots be improved by aligning current city guidelines with those of the state.
The letter cited the DPV-Eagles Autism Foundation clinic as an example that should be replicated.
Babcock – who along with Calvarese-Donovan has steadfastly advocated for IDD vaccine access at DPV — agreed, noting that the clinic created “an environment of acceptance” for clients.
“We have such a unified team of people here,” she said. “Your need is number one, and we see and value that, and we’re here for you.”
The clinic also served as a tribute to those in the DPV community who were lost to COVID, said Calvarese-Donovan and Babcock.
“This morning, we had a little huddle before we started, a moment of silence,” said Calvarese-Donovan. “This is a big weekend for us. A year later, here we are, and we’re fighting the fight.”
Philadelphia area resident Jennifer Abramson, who brought son Leon and daughter Allyson, described the vaccination clinic as “a huge relief.”
During the past year, Abramson said she experienced “so many worries about what we could do in the community and with school,” and spent time “cycling around in (her) mind every day as to what was worth the risk.”
The outreach was “an opportunity to be in an environment where people were very understanding,” she said, noting that Leon and Allyson were relaxed.
With their second doses just a few weeks away, Abramson said she felt “peace of mind” in taking “this first step towards getting a little protection.”
That sense of relief was widely shared by clinic clients, who could being “to return to a little bit of normalcy,” said Dr. Friedrich.
“We stress to them that they still need to be careful, but it’s night and day,” he said. “It’s amazing how you see people relax. They walk out of here with a skip in their step.”