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Anchorage

At Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter, a COVID-19 vaccine clinic is a cause for hope

Michael Meisake in his bunk at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage on March 9, 2021. Meisake received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Michael Meisake leaned back in his bunk early Tuesday morning as he listened to reggae music through his phone speaker and dug into a plateful of scrambled eggs.

The 50-year-old guest of Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage had just received his second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and he was feeling good.

“I’m not scared of needles,” he said. “A couple of my friends had sore arms, a little pain after the first shot, but not me.”

A year ago, Alaskans were first told to stay home to protect themselves and others from a strange, new virus.

But for those without homes, social distancing is particularly hard, and last fall, as COVID-19 began to spread through the state, multiple outbreaks sprang up among the homeless population in Anchorage, including a large outbreak at Brother Francis that grew to over 100 cases among staff and residents, and caused at least one death.

“It’s been rough,” said Meisake, one of about 70 current guests at Brother Francis.

When the pandemic arrived in Alaska last March, Sullivan Arena was transformed into a mass homeless shelter in Anchorage, and Brother Francis helped fill a need for hosting older and more medically fragile unhoused people, who are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Instead of hosting over 200 guests per night, the Brother Francis population shrank to less half that size to give residents the space to socially distance and stay protected.

Perhaps the one silver lining to come of the pandemic was that shift in population size, Meisake said.

“It feels more like a family unit here, now,” he said. “I’m trying to keep it that way.”

Ben Dexter, 53, a shelter guest who grew up in Sitka, also received his second vaccine shot on Tuesday.

Ben Dexter, a resident at Brother Francis Shelter, received his second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on March 9, 2021 at a clinic set up in the Anchorage shelter and run by Southcentral Foundation. Patricia Cushman, far right, helped administer vaccines to residents on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

“It feels pretty good to get it out of the way,” he said. Dexter wears shorts and a T-shirt, even in the winter.

Most of his family has gotten vaccinated already, too, and he said he’s looking forward to getting to see them again. His father-in-law recently died from COVID-19.

“He was a good person,” Dexter said.

David Rittenberg, the executive director at Brother Francis, said that the majority of shelter guests — somewhere between 70% and 80% — were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.

David Rittenberg, program director at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage, photographed on March 9, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

He said that he’s thankful for a partnership with Southcentral Foundation, which made the vaccine clinics possible, and even hosted a few educational sessions to answer questions shelter guests might have had about the new vaccines.

Now that he’s had both shots, Meisake said he was looking forward to attending church for the first time in a long time, and that the end of the pandemic now feels near.

On Monday, a sunny and unusually warm day in March, Meisake walked a few miles down the road to the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall, just to feel the sun on his skin.

“I’ve been feeling hopeful lately,” he said.

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