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Health Department Hosts Sensory-Friendly Vaccine Clinic To Reach Out To Those With Disabilities

Allyson McCann hugs her son, Sean as they sit after he got his first COVID-19 vaccine shot
Sophia Saliby/ WKAR
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Allyson McCann bought her son, Sean, to the clinic after she wasn't able to bring him to his doctor's office to get the shot.

As more Michiganders get vaccinated against COVID-19, health departments are taking new, targeted approaches to make sure everyone that wants a dose can get one.

The Barry-Eaton District Health Department is hosting some clinics focused on accessibility. 

Anne Barna helped organize the Barry-Eaton District Health Department’s first sensory-friendly COVID vaccine clinic. She works for the department as its planning and health promotion director.

Barna took inspiration from her own life when she pitched the idea for the clinic.

"I'm the parent of two kids with special needs myself, one who has autism and one who has cognitive impairments. And as a family, we've taken advantage of lots of different sensory-friendly events over the years."

There's a lot of people there, so it's not the most sensory-friendly place to get vaccinated.

While people with disabilities are welcome at all of the department's events, a clinic that's sensory-friendly is designed to be less stimulating and overwhelming. Barna says the department’s usual vaccination site at the Lansing Mall is not ideal for some people with disabilities.

"It's a large space. It's really echoey. There's a lot of people there, so it's not the most sensory-friendly place to get vaccinated," she said.

But with this clinic, each patient can their own room to get their shot and recover among other accommodations.

"Many of the people who have registered have told us, you know, they need a private space. They need low lighting," Barna said. "They need to be able to move around when they're not being vaccinated."

handout at a vaccination clinic from the Eaton Regional Education Services Agency that walks through coping strategies when someone is nervous about getting the shot
Credit Sophia Saliby/ WKAR
The health department had a handout available for patients at the clinic that explained the vaccination process and coping strategies for if they get nervous.

Staff also have clear masks for people with hearing disabilities and fidget toys for people who may need to be distracted because they're nervous about getting the shot.

Allyson McCann brought her 16-year-old son Sean to get vaccinated. He has autism, and McCann said she knew taking him to a mass clinic wouldn’t be possible.

"I was actually emailing his family doctor multiple times trying to figure out if she could get a dose of the vaccine for him, so that he could get a vaccine at the office where it was quieter in the room," McCann said.

"But that was not something they were doing."

She says she signed him up for an appointment as soon as she found out about it.

Sean was the first the patient of the day. He was brought into a private room along with his mother and grandmother. A volunteer was also in the room to monitor him for the 15 minutes after he got the shot.

When the nurse came in, she explained why she was there and if Sean had any questions. Then it came time for the vaccine. Sean was visibly tense, and his mother held him for comfort.

But it was over quickly enough, and McCann seemed surprised at how well it went.

"I didn't have to really hold him down this time, and I've had to hold him down in the past for other vaccines just because he's so scared, but he didn't scream at all which is also awesome."

After Sean, about 30 more patients got vaccinated.

Our strategy right now is to make it as easy and convenient as possible for people to get vaccinated.

Barna said the clinic is just one way for her department to get as many people as possible immunized against COVID-19. 

"Our strategy right now is to make it as easy and convenient as possible for people to get vaccinated. And so for some people, that might mean having a sensory-friendly clinic," she said.

"For other people, it might mean going into their workplace and offering vaccinations at work."

The health department has at least two more sensory friendly clinics planned.

Beyond that, Barna along with her colleagues are hosting a vaccination event at a school to reach younger people who have become recently eligible for the shots as well as a community clinic.

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