Robert Kelso winced as the needle entered his arm. The injection lasted a second, but he still felt the sting minutes later.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a shot,” he said.
A recovering drug addict, Kelso, 33, has avoided needles for three years, saying his days of shooting up are the reason he now lives on the streets.
But he made an exception Thursday night at Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park, joining a half dozen other homeless men and women who received free H1N1 flu vaccine, courtesy of the Homeless Voice advocacy group.
“I’ve been worried about the swine flu, like everyone else, about coming down with it and dying,” Kelso said, rubbing his still-stinging arm. “I knew there was a shot for it. I just never thought I’d be able to get it.”
For the next three weeks, volunteers with the Hollywood-based Homeless Voice will spend every night trying to vaccinate Broward County’s homeless population against H1N1. After that, the group will hit the streets once a week to keep the program going.
The new strain, also known as swine flu, has infected more than 22 million Americans and killed 3,900 since it was identified in April, according to an October report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A lot of the vaccine has been made available to those most at risk, including pregnant women and those younger than 25. But advocates for the homeless say destitute adults can also easily catch the virus because most of them have chronic, untreated health conditions.
“Many of these people are already unhealthy,” said Sean Cononie, executive director of Homeless Voice. “If they get sick on the streets, their conditions get worse. It’s a rough and painful recovery for them.”
Stocked with a cooler full of the vaccine, Cononie and a team of volunteers that included a doctor and a nurse drove around Broward County Thursday in the group’s ambulance, prodding any homeless person they met to take a shot. They vaccinated about a dozen people during two stops, in Hallandale Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
The CDC provided Cononie with enough vaccine for 200 shots; he has a request out for another 1,000.
The homeless – and anyone else seeking H1N1 shots – can get them free at any South Florida health center run by the state Health Deparment.
But Michael Wizad, 43, who reluctantly put out his arm to be jabbed at Stranahan Park, said few homeless people seek treatment.
“Many of these guys are struggling through a lot. They’re not really concerned about getting a flu shot,” said Wizad.
He said he got the shot only because it was free and because the volunteers were handing out packs of cigarettes near the ambulance.
“A lot of the people out here are not looking for better health. They just want a little relief from their lives, a little peace of mind,” he said.
Volunteers like Chad Frank, a Plantation doctor who helps distribute the vaccine, hope they’ll be able to combat that apathy by going into areas where the homeless live.
“We all have hearts. We don’t want to see people dying from something that could have been prevented,” Frank said. Wearing a yellow Homeless Voice vest over his shirt and tie, he spent the night answering questions about H1N1 and helping give the shots.
When Kelso rolled up his sleeve, Frank tapped his other arm to keep him distracted while the nurse gave him the shot.
“Out here, a lot of us sometime share one cigarette, or we all eat the same food,” Kelso said. “We come into contact with other people a lot, and I don’t want anyone else getting sick. We’ve got to look out for each other.”
Joel Marino can be reached at jmarino@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4552.
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