Meeting a Challenge to Vaccinate Thousands

In January, when COVID-19 vaccines started trickling into New York State, the barriers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to receive the vaccine seemed insurmountable.

  • Would they understand the dire need to be vaccinated, especially when COVID-related death rates in New York were 2.4 times higher among this population?
  • How would they or their families navigate the complicated registration system?
  • How would they get to the clinics?
  • What if they were confined to their homes?
  • How would the vaccination sites accommodate their special needs?

These questions were clearly a matter of life and death – and the employees at Person Centered Services knew it.  A quick and aggressive mobilization effort that included partner agencies serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) resulted in about 2,200 people receiving at least one dose of the vaccine so far, and another 1,200 more vaccine appointments arranged for the coming weeks.

The more than 3,400-person total represents over 85 percent of those eligible and served by Person Centered Services who live on their own or with family, and who want the vaccine. That includes over 1,100 people in Erie County alone, and efforts are ongoing.

Person Centered Services’ executives, with assistance from I/DD providers, worked around the clock to ensure that this vulnerable population was deemed eligible for the vaccine, then to collaborate with officials across Western New York for vaccine doses to be earmarked for people with disabilities.

This involved working with agency partners to arrange specialized clinics or working with the counties to directly access vaccines for this population, and each county situation and process was different. In every case, however, it meant assisting with the registrations for thousands, and sometimes working with community partners to arrange for transportation or collaborating with partner agencies to utilize their transportation resources.

“A Care Coordination Organization’s role is to connect people to the care they need, so we knew when the vaccines became available that it was our job to help people access it,” said Bridget Bartolone, CEO of Person Centered Services.  “It hasn’t been easy, but by making this a priority and collaborating with our many community and provider connections, we know we have worked together to save lives. This is Care Coordination at its best!”

It has been an all-hands-on-deck effort. The company, which manages care for over 17,000 people in 18 counties, first utilized its RNs and other clinical staff to educate Care Coordination staff, so they could best support individuals in deciding whether to take the vaccine.

In some counties, it was a truly collaborative effort involving several non-profit agency members of the Developmental Disabilities Association of Western New York (DDAWNY) and Person Centered Services working together. Once clinics were arranged and appointments finalized, Person Centered Services’ employees continued to help every step of the way, including attending many of the clinics to assist people with the entire process.

“With the health and wellbeing of thousands in mind, so many of the people who work in the Developmental Disability field got together and successfully carried out of what we thought at first would be nearly impossible,” said Alicia Fellows, Vice President of Program Operations. “It’s a strong partnership, all for the people we serve.

Jason MacClellan, 19, of Tonawanda, received his vaccine in a special drive-up clinic set up in Lockport specifically for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be administered to at-risk populations. Jason said his Care Coordinator, Tamara Austin, “did everything to get us here today, for the vaccine. We wouldn’t be here without her and we’re so thankful.”

After receiving his second dose of the vaccine at a special clinic in Warsaw, Jacob Hammer, 24, of Darien, said he felt “good and strong,” and then flexed his arm muscles.

“Person Centered Services employees know this is a priority,” said Bartolone, “and we will continue to work with our community partners until every individual we serve who wants access to the vaccine has it.”