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Catholic Charities adds vaccine outreach to food pantry


Francisco Figueroa and his daughter, Maria Figueroa, give a thumbs-up after Francisco received his COVID vaccine shot at Catholic Charities' Yawkey Center. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault

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DORCHESTER -- Clients of the food pantry at Catholic Charities' Yawkey Center found something extra in their bags of food in recent weeks: flyers advertising upcoming coronavirus vaccine clinics, which would be held on certain days at the same time and location as the food pantry.

Jacqueline Cunniff, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston's marketing and communications manager, said there has been a push for food pantry clients to get vaccinated.

"It's largely a population that otherwise wouldn't have access to the vaccine. So pairing it with the food pantry -- you're here for the food, while you're here might as well get vaccinated -- is the push we've been doing," Cunniff said.

The clinics were organized in partnership with Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, which holds mobile vaccination and testing clinics mostly in the Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan neighborhoods, though they also serve Roslindale, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, and the South End.

"We want to meet people in the places that they're already familiar and comfortable within the community and just be able to get them the important health services that they need in a situation that's comfortable for them," said Pauline Gill, who coordinates the mobile COVID team, at the Aug. 24 clinic.

She said the turnout varies depending on the day, the location, and many factors.

"There's a lot of vaccine hesitancy. Certainly, back in the beginning, numbers were very, very high. Now I feel like a lot of the work is in reaching out to smaller groups of people," Gill said.

She acknowledged that though the vaccine can't guarantee complete protection, vaccinated individuals are far less likely to become severely ill or die from the coronavirus.

"(The vaccine) does a lot to prevent you from getting COVID in the first place, but even if you get it, it's going to be a much more mild case on average than if you were not vaccinated," Gill said.

Catholic Charities' vaccine clinic was set up in the Yawkey Center parking lot, where clients could wait under the shade of a tent. Nurses from Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center processed paperwork and administered the vaccines in an air-conditioned trailer.

Francisco Figueroa heard about the clinic from his daughter, who works at Catholic Charities. He said he was getting the vaccine because it was required in order to visit his homeland of Puerto Rico.

"I'm glad that I got it, because you never know," he said after being vaccinated at the Aug. 24 clinic.

Beth Chambers, director of the Greater Boston and South divisions of Catholic Charities, said that they did not have to change anything about their routine or setup to hold the clinic, as they serve up to 200 families a day.

"We're here, we're outside, this is the best way to do it, and it works," she said.

She credited their chief operating officer, Kelley Tuthill, with first having the idea for the clinic. Chambers then reached out to St. Katharine Drexel Parish, where her husband is the music director, and learned that they were holding vaccine clinics on weekends. Catholic Charities, in turn, held their clinic during the week.

Chambers said they will continue to hold coronavirus vaccine clinics in the future.

"We can make it work. It's that important to the community," she said.

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