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Tampa Bay health officials vaccinate homeless for flu

Donald Williams, 57, winces as nurse Carmen Tomasello of the Hillsborough County Health Department gives him a seasonal flu vaccination this month. He got a shot in his other arm for swine flu as well, part of the push to inoculate the homeless.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Donald Williams, 57, winces as nurse Carmen Tomasello of the Hillsborough County Health Department gives him a seasonal flu vaccination this month. He got a shot in his other arm for swine flu as well, part of the push to inoculate the homeless.

TAMPA — "Name?" Donald Williams.

"Birth date?" 8/29/52.

"Address?" Pause.

"I got no home."

Williams sat beneath the glow of a fluorescent lightbulb, at a folding table with Hillsborough County Health Department nurse Carmen Tomasello.

His container of meatballs, peas, potatoes and a hot dog sat wrapped in a grocery bag on a table next to syringes and vials of seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccine. Rolling portable coolers, filled with vaccine, rested at their feet.

While the threat of swine flu still looms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged communities across the country to focus attention on a usually forgotten, medically underserved segment of the population: the homeless.

Two weeks ago, Hillsborough health officials started giving shots to homeless residents like Williams. Pinellas began in November.

Across Florida, swine flu is on the wane. State health officials reported Thursday they are seeing only sporadic activity in the Tampa Bay region. And Florida has now seen three weeks without any confirmed deaths from the H1N1 flu.

Still, health officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated to reduce the threat of another wave of illness. Flu season in Florida peaks in mid February and may continue into March and beyond.

As a result of the push by the CDC, health departments on both sides of the bay have started working with local homeless outreach organizations to vaccinate the residents they serve. Some cases of swine flu have popped up in local shelters, homeless advocates said.

"With their overall lack of access to care and generally poorer health, the idea is that if the swine flu is kept down in this population, there is less chance of it spreading to others," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas Homeless Coalition. "The homeless get sick like everyone else," she said, "but they are getting sick on the streets."

In the parking lot of an old gas station, now converted into a restaurant, on this chilly night, volunteers with the Servants of Christ ushered about 50 people through the food line.

Small children stood with their mothers. Another woman brought her golden retriever, who also got dog food from donations collected by the group.

Williams made sure to be one of the first to get food. Then he hobbled over to where Tomasello sat.

After going through a list of questions, the nurse asked him to take off his sweatshirts to reveal his arms. He winced as she stuck him, once in each arm for seasonal and swine flus.

As health providers connect with homeless outreach organizations like Servants of Christ, the goal is to learn about similar groups and vaccinate as many people as possible, said Ryan Pedigo, director of public health preparedness for the Hillsborough County Health Department.

"And now that we have plenty of vaccine," he said, "we can plan where to go and find more people."

Shirley Raines lives in a van with her daughter, Sarah Whitley. The pair regularly show up for free dinners in the lot off Palm River Road.

"There's no way we could afford to get my mom the shots," Whitley said. "She's 70, and she needs this."

Standing in the food line, Whitley explained that she would have gotten the swine flu vaccination if she weren't allergic to eggs.

"I have a bad heart," she said, "so I could really use this."

Back at the folding table, Tomasello tossed syringes into a red medical waste bin. Then she gently placed bandages on Williams' arms.

After relayering his sweatshirts, Williams picked up his food. Home was under an overpass not too far away.

"I've been homeless for six years," he said. "I can't work. I can't walk too good, either."

He said he fell off a truck he was unloading and broke his hip and back. Since then, he hasn't been able to work. He comes to the dinners whenever he can make it and decided he should get the shots because they were free.

"I've been feeling really, really bad lately," Williams said. "I figured I better do something so I don't get worse."

Holding his bag of food, he shuffled away into the night.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

Tampa Bay health officials vaccinate homeless for flu 01/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 11:49pm]
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