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At football stadium, a COVID-19 vaccination clinic designed for people with autism: 'We need to meet them where they are'

Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA — Trey Gillece, 20, was nervous as he rode the escalator up to the second floor at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and entered a concourse remade Saturday as a coronavirus vaccination clinic.

"I don't know, guys," he said. His father, Jim, patted him on the back, leading him toward the folding table.

Trey sat down and gripped a small football. As his son trembled, Jim crouched down, placed his arm over his left shoulder and spoke to him. "Trey, look at Dad," said brother Griffin, 18, holding his phone to take pictures.

The needle slid into Trey's arm. "Wow! Yes!" he exclaimed, as the crowd around him applauded. "I'm OK. I'm OK."

Trey, who has autism, was among the first served during the clinic hosted by the Eagles Autism Foundation and Divine Providence Village, a residential facility in Delaware County for people with intellectual disabilities. The event catered to the autism community, which has faced some particular challenges in getting vaccinated.

Some families worry that children with autism won't be able to wait in long lines at walk-up clinics, or may have challenging behaviors while getting vaccinated, said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. One family told Hammond that their daughter had been outside so infrequently during the pandemic, they didn't know what taking her out in public Saturday would look like.

 

Families have also been struggling to access doses: Pennsylvania hasn't included autism on its list of conditions to be prioritized for vaccination. Philadelphia, which is distributing doses independently, recently added people with intellectual disabilities to its priority list — a group that includes some people with autism. But caregivers weren't included, though they have been elsewhere in the state.

Philadelphia parents of kids with disabilities aren't eligible for the vaccine. But they would be if they lived elsewhere in Pa.

Saturday's clinic was for eligible people with autism — who had to be 18 or older — and family members, Hammond said. Just over 1,000 people registered for the Moderna doses.

"This population needs support," Hammond said. "We need to meet them where they are."

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