COVID-19 vaccine brings relief to Salt Lake City’s homeless hospice, after long lockdown

More than 80 Pfizer vaccines go to The INN Between’s staff and medically fragile residents.

While the coronavirus has been raging for months outside the walls of The INN Between, resident Kathy Conway said life hasn’t been so bad inside Salt Lake City’s homeless hospice center.

Not one of the center’s medically fragile residents has contracted the virus during the pandemic, to the relief of The INN Between’s directors, who have watched outbreaks devastate many care facilities. The home’s staff has tried to help residents cope with isolation by organizing socially distanced bingo games and toting in foosball and pingpong tables. And every morning begins with a breakfast of smiley face pancakes, Conway said.

“You can’t help but laugh and be in a good mood for the rest of the day.”

Still, the 61-year-old with chronic respiratory problems said she’s been well aware of the disease’s danger and has been wondering how much time would pass before she’d be comfortable visiting the library or going window shopping. So she felt a wave of relief Saturday as she joined fellow residents at The INN Between in receiving the COVID-19 vaccination that could signal the pandemic is in its final stretches.

Health workers from CVS were scheduled to work from morning to late afternoon Saturday administering more than 80 Pfizer vaccines to The INN Between’s residents and staff, according to Kimberlin Correa, the medical respite center’s executive director. Though some raised questions about the shot, center directors weren’t aware of anyone who ultimately turned it down — even Correa, who acknowledged she was wary at first.

“In the beginning, I was actually in the camp of I’m not going to be one of the guinea pigs that’s first in line for the vaccine, and I was pretty adamant about that,” she said. “Then, as we saw the results, I completely did a 180. And now here I am today ready to get my vaccine.”

Utah is currently working to inoculate staff and residents at long-term care facilities around the state as part of its initial vaccination phase, which also covers health care workers, first responders and teachers. Utahns who are 70 or older are next in line, after which the vaccine will go to people with underlying health conditions and those experiencing homelessness, among others.

Even with the vaccination, The INN Between’s residents and staff can’t let their guard down just yet, since they’ll still need their second dose in a few weeks. But residents and staff saw Saturday as a sign that life can slowly begin going back to normal.

“A lot of us are hoping that after that second vaccination, we can all burn our masks, have a party and be good to go,” joked Matilda Lindgren, The INN Between’s deputy director.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Inn Between, a medical respite center for people experiencing homelessness, begins vaccinating its entire staff and its residents on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

Lindgren said the medical respite center, which currently has 28 residents, has been in a tight lockdown since the March arrival of COVID-19 in Utah. It’s been months since residents could see visitors or leave the home to go to the grocery store for their favorite treats, she said, and the restrictions have taken a toll.

Conway said she misses going shopping for clothes. Correa said it’s also been difficult to close The INN Between to volunteers — who help dust and tidy the facility, wash the linens and are often the only visitors that residents have.

But with The INN Between serving homeless individuals who have terminal illnesses or are too sick to be out on the streets, center representatives said they couldn’t risk an outbreak.

The coronavirus has killed hundreds of people at long-term care facilities in Utah and at least three individuals experiencing homelessness, and Lindgren said she and other staff members at The INN Between were terrified of introducing the disease to their facility.

“The first few months were just so stressful. I still feel the stress of it,” she said. “Coming to work, and feeling like I could potentially be the one bringing it to our residents.”

Though an employee at The INN Between did contract the virus outside of work, Correa credits masking and hygiene protocols with preventing the infection from spreading to others.

The INN Between, which has space for nearly 50, also stopped accepting new residents during the first couple of months of the pandemic in hopes of keeping the disease at bay. The center eventually resumed admissions but placed each newcomer in quarantine for 10 days as a precaution, Lindgren said.

Though difficult, the lockdown has tightened the bonds between residents who have relied heavily on one another for company and have been looking out for one another like never before, The INN Between leaders said.

And going back to a more normal routine could come with its own challenges, said Lindgren, who believes the shock of reengaging with the broader community could trigger a “trauma response.” During a rare excursion into a canyon last year, one resident experienced a panic attack because of how overwhelming it was to leave The INN Between, and Lindgren anticipates others might have a similar reaction when they reenter the world outside the care center.

“They’ve not personally witnessed what that’s like, to walk into a store with other people and everybody being in masks and having shields up at every register,” she said. “It’s going to be a whole new world they’re going out into.”

Conway, though, can’t wait to regain her independence.

And although she was a little nervous about getting the vaccine after watching inoculations on the news, she said it ended up being nothing to complain about.

“On TV, [the needle] looks like it’s five miles long,” she laughed. “But no, it took a second, and it didn’t hurt at all.”