For children with disabilities, OHA’s mobile medical teams bring COVID-19 vaccines to families who can’t go to them

photo of a child doing a happy dance after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine
A child does a happy dance after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination from OHA’s mobile medical team

This summer, as families with children with disabilities prepare their youngest to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, they may find themselves facing unusually high levels of anxiety in their youngsters. But the good news is they don’t have face it alone – and they don’t even have to leave home.

“For any child, and for plenty of adults for that matter, injections pose the potential to incite fear and even a fight-or-flight response,” said Drew Strayer, special populations manager in the field operations unit of Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) COVID-19 response.

“To meet the need for safety, and to relieve as much anxiety and stress for the individual as possible, OHA is offering in-home vaccinations for those individuals with a disability for whom a medical office or drive-thru event may pose significant challenge,” he said.

The field operations team will first contact agencies and community partners for contact information of parents, guardians and caregivers of children who have disabilities and receive most of their care and services at home. The team will then reach out to offer the opportunity for an in-home vaccination. The team is preparing to begin vaccinating children under age 5 when the vaccine is authorized for that age group, possibly as soon as next week.

“In the past there have been equity concerns about how fast each population is served,” Strayer said. “In this situation, we see an opportunity for a really timely response. And we don’t want to miss that opportunity for equity.”

photo of a young child receiving a flu vaccine, sitting on his mother's lap.
A child receives an in-home flu vaccination from OHA’s mobile medical team

In recent months, mobile teams assisted with in-home vaccinations for children with disabilities ages 5 to 11. The mobile health care staff are sensitive to children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and find ways to engage and distract them to put them at ease. Those distractions might involve toys or tactile stimuli that enables the child to focus and feel something to help them release anxiety.

Strayer recalled a home visit with a child who had intellectual and developmental disabilities. The nurse squatted to the child’s level and asked the child to squeeze his fingers as hard as he could. As the child focused on the nurse’s instructions, the nurse continued talking. Meanwhile, another nurse administered the vaccination. It was over before the child registered what had happened.

“The child wasn’t upset at all because he didn’t experience any pain, and he didn’t have the visual stimuli that would normally be upsetting,” Strayer said. “It was all done under the direction and approval of the parents. It was really peaceful, a good experience.”

Families of children with disabilities interested in an in-home visit can email  ORESF8.AOCTestingBranch@dhsoha.state.or.us.

The mobile team will respond to discuss the family’s needs and how the health care team can provide the vaccine in a way that is comfortable and supportive.

“The nurses on our clinical team have just been phenomenal with some of these individuals,” Strayer said. “Families have praised our team numerous times. It’s because of the deference, the respect and dignity that is provided to each individual. How we do things is as important as what we do.”