COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic Designed To Be Sensory Pleasant

PHILADELPHIA – Trey Gillece, 20, was nervous as he took the escalator to the second floor of Lincoln Financial Field and entered a redesigned hall last weekend as a coronavirus vaccination clinic.

“I don’t know guys,” he said. His father Jim patted his back and led him to the folding table.

Trey sat down and picked up a small soccer ball. When his son trembled, Jim ducked, put his arm over his left shoulder, and spoke to him. “Trey, look at Dad,” said 18-year-old brother Griffin, holding his cellphone in his hand to take pictures.

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The needle slipped into Trey’s arm. “Impressive! Yes!” he exclaimed as the crowd around him applauded. “I’m fine. I’m ok.”

Trey, who suffers from autism, was one of the first to receive care during the Eagles Autism Foundation clinic and Divine Providence Village, a Delaware County residential community for people with intellectual disabilities. The event was aimed at the autism community who faced particular challenges with vaccination.

Some families fear that children with autism may not be able to wait in long lines in walk-in clinics or that they may be challenging during vaccination, said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. One family told Hammond that their daughter had been outside so rarely during the pandemic that they did not know what it would be like to take her out in public over the weekend.

Families have also struggled with access to doses: Pennsylvania did not include autism in its list of conditions that must be prioritized for vaccination. Philadelphia, which independently distributes doses, recently added people with intellectual disabilities to its priority list – a group that includes some people with autism. But carers were not included despite being elsewhere in the state.

The clinic was for eligible people with autism – who had to be at least 18 years old – and family members, Hammond said. A little more than 1,000 people have registered for the Moderna cans.

“This population needs support,” said Hammond. “We have to meet them where they are.”

To this end, the foundation tried to create a sensory-friendly experience – to use luxury boxes as “quiet rooms” with fidgety toys, weighted ceilings and light projections on the ceiling to create a calming atmosphere. Families could spend time there if a child was overwhelmed, and in some cases nurses stepped in to privately administer vaccines.

The by-appointment clinic also made it possible for families who expected their children would have difficulty getting to the stadium receiving cans in their cars, Hammond said.

The organizers tried to help caregivers prepare for the experience by providing a visual schedule of the day’s events – a step-by-step series of photos showing the lobby and escalator – to share with their children, and so on To relieve anxiety.

Marge Muccioli from Holland waited until Saturday morning to tell sons Michael and Nick about the clinic – to avoid causing nerves.

“Since the onset of COVID, fear has gone through the roof,” said Muccioli, whose sons – both 21 and on the autism spectrum – were given cans in one of the quiet rooms. Both were in virtual school year-round and were afraid to return to the classroom, Muccioli said.

The clinic was the first to serve people with autism it came across, Muccioli said, adding that it was looking and searching for options.

It was also a rough year for Cynthia Charleston of northeast Philadelphia and her 24-year-old son Lafayette. “We have nowhere to go,” said Charleston. “I thought he wouldn’t mind, but it did.” Lafayette wasn’t nervous about the vaccination clinic, however – he was holding a popular sensory toy, a funnel with a piece of string that spins when he received his shot.

For Jim Gillece, stressed out looking for vaccines through pharmacies and health systems, the clinic was the perfect solution for sons Trey and Griffin, who are also on the autism spectrum.

This is “just lucky for us and our family,” said Gillece, who lives in Malvern and has raised money for the Eagles Autism Foundation. His wife Patti also joined him.

The Gilleces knew Trey would be concerned. Jim Gillece spent time walking his son through the visual schedule for the clinic: the lot they would park on, the place they would congregate after receiving their cans. Still, Trey woke up worried at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.

“Take a deep breath,” Hammond advised him.

After Trey got his dose, he wondered why the experience was over. “You know what, guys, what was I thinking,” he said to his family. “I’m safe now.”

“You did a great job,” said Diana DiMemmo, a Divine Providence nurse who has vaccinated more than 12,000 people since January.

Many people who received their vaccines have been concerned and “You need to find out what their needs are,” DiMemmo said. Trey “just got her way and was such a brave soul.”

A second clinic will be held in late April for people who have been vaccinated in the clinic to receive their second dose. “It’s the same, isn’t it?” Asked Trey DiMemmo.

“The same,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”

© 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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