If you or someone you love has had a difficult time getting the COVID vaccine due to transportation hurdles, additional assistance is now available.
The Lehigh Valley Independent Transportation Network (ITNLehighValley) has partnered with the Bethlehem Health Bureau and Meals on Wheels of the Greater Lehigh Valley (MOWGLV) on a program which delivers COVID vaccine doses to members of the community who can’t drive.
ITNLehighValley, an affiliate of the national Independent Transportation Network, is a nonprofit that provides dignified transportation for senior citizens, people who are blind and other local residents who do not drive.
ITNLehighValley was established in 2013. Currently, the organization services 254 riders across 38 zip codes in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
The mobile vaccine clinic initiative combines the services provided by ITNLehighValley with those provided by Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit which feeds members of the community along a variety of routes.
“Instead of what we usually do, which is transporting riders to appointments, we’d be transporting the vaccinators, which is a team of two usually, and the vaccines and their equipment,” said Jessie Shappell, Executive Director of ITNLehighValley.
The initiative began Monday. Shappell said ITNLehighValley will largely be tasked with vaccinating non-driving residents of Northampton County.
She believes the program will serve as an efficient way to quickly vaccinate seniors living along or near Meals on Wheels routes, including routes in Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township.
“The idea is that it really only takes 15 minutes start to finish with each person,” Shappell said.
ITNLehighValley has already played an important role in providing access to the COVID vaccine. Shappell said a grant from Capital BlueCross and private donations have allowed the organization to provide rides to vaccine appointments free of charge.
“That covers the cost to get the people to the vaccine, the cost to bring them back and then with most of them receiving a two-dose vaccine it would cover both rides,” Shappell said.
ITNLehighValley is comprised of members, including both riders and drivers. Riders can plan rides in advance or ride on demand, and drivers are available year-round, 24 hours a day.
Although the COVID pandemic has caused the organization to prioritize essential rides, such as those to vaccine appointments, doctor’s visits and grocery stores, Shappell said it is important that ITNLehighValley provide rides to its members for any reason.
“ITN, generally, would do ride services for any purpose at all. It’s very difficult for people to make that decision, or to have that decision made for them to hand over their keys, and so we want to keep them as independent as possible,” Shappell said. “A lot of times that allows them to stay in their homes as well, so making sure they have access to their doctor, to the grocery store and things like that allows them to stay independent longer.”
ITNLehighValley’s driver force is made up of both paid and volunteer drivers. Shappell said that because of the 24/7 nature of their services, paid drivers with a consistent schedule are necessary. However, she added that volunteer drivers are crucial for the organization to be able to keep their costs down.
“We’re a nonprofit organization, and we do charge ride fares, but we really strive to keep it affordable,” Shappell said. “The volunteer drivers are really the backbone, because they help us keep costs so low to the riders, and they help us keep our overhead as close to zero as possible.”
ITNLehighValley’s drivers provide more specialized services than would a driver working for popular rideshare apps like Uber or Lyft. All drivers–paid and volunteer–undergo training before they begin giving rides.
“One thing that’s different about ITN is that we don’t just pull up like an Uber or a Lyft and have someone get out of the vehicle,” Shappell said. “We’ll walk them into their doctor’s office, or help them find the suite that they need. If they need to be in a transport wheelchair to get to where they need to go, we’ll be walking them through the hospital.”
Shappell said volunteer drivers are more important than ever, and that the COVID pandemic took a toll on their volunteer driver base.
“We saw a lot of our regular volunteers drop off during the pandemic because of the risks to themselves and their families,” she said.
Shappell said the situation is improving, however, because ITN drivers are eligible to receive the COVID vaccine.
“We’re really lucky that a lot of our drivers were able to get the vaccine very early, and their comfort level increased with that,” she said.
Riders or drivers interested in becoming members of ITNLehighValley may do so from their website.
Another way to contribute is by donating to ITNLehighValley’s Help on Wheels program, in which individuals can pay for rides for ITN members.
Follow ITNLehighValley on Facebook for news and updates about the organization.