Health Advice



When needles strike fear, practice comes before the COVID-19 vaccine

Colleen Shalby, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

LOS ANGELES – Margie Garcia, the mother of an 18-year-old with autism, desperately wants her son to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

But she fears that the sight of the syringe could trigger his anxiety, causing him to run away or tackle someone.

So last week, her son, Niko, made a practice run at a mock clinic along with dozens of other young adults and children with developmental disabilities. He went through a registration process, then a nurse placed a syringe — needle-less — against his arm and stamped the spot with a bandage. Afterward, he sat in an observation area, wearing red headphones to block out any unexpected noise. All around him in the parking lot floated bubbles and balloons.

The goal of the clinic was to create a controlled environment free of stimuli that could cause distress, and it worked for her son, said Garcia, 47.

"It's so difficult to go to a non-special needs population vaccination climate," said Garcia, who worried about her son being overwhelmed by unexpected noise or bright lights. "This is really, really beneficial for him."

For most children and young adults with developmental disabilities, the vaccination process takes place without incident. The scene at the mock clinic held by the Friendship Foundation — a nonprofit in Redondo Beach — was mostly calm, and aside from a few grimaces and some coaxing, most participants went through the simulation with ease.


But reactions to a new environment can be unpredictable, raising concerns for parents and advocates. Some are cautious about exposing their children to situations that could cause them to panic and physically resist. People with autism do not always respond to the commands of a stranger. The mock clinic itself was inspired after a parent shared a story of her son having to be held down to receive the shot.

A standard vaccine clinic, advocates say, isn't always a conducive place for some people with disabilities to get a shot: Appointment slots are rigid, time to get comfortable within a new environment is limited, waiting areas overwhelm. The experience can be anxiety-inducing for anyone. For those who may not comprehend what the process entails, it can be debilitating.

In an attempt to facilitate the vaccination process at home, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department unveiled an initiative this year called Operation Homebound, which sends teams of health workers and police to vaccinate senior citizens and people with disabilities in their homes.

But the program, which uses the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, was put on hold following a pause in the vaccine's distribution.


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