Kylie Kingsbury and Kira Lewis are so inseparable that co-workers regularly confuse one for the other.
Such a team that they earned a joint nickname from their former boss.
So close that they wear matching friendship bracelets that read “K synergy.”
K synergy isn’t in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary – yet – but Lewis defines it as the result of a moment in which “I couldn’t have done that, you couldn’t have done that, it had to be both of us – and the sum is greater than its parts.”
The beneficiaries of K synergy might define it as “life-saving.”
Kingsbury and Lewis have spearheaded the Spokane Regional Health District’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the homeless community, working to ensure access to testing and vaccines for people living in shelters or on the street.
Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator, and Lewis, public health nurse, formed an indefatigable duo just prior to the onset of COVID-19 and applied lessons learned to the pandemic response.
Lewis entered public health out of a desire to address health issues before they show up in a hospital room. She joined the Spokane Regional Health District’s tuberculosis program in 2018 before transitioning to a focus on hepatitis B vaccinations.
After several jobs in social work, which included serving refugees, Kingsbury joined the health district in 2019.
That year, Lewis and Kingsbury worked together to stem the alarming spread of hepatitis A – a similar virus to hepatitis B that is transmitted differently – among people experiencing homelessness.
Lewis credits Kingsbury with launching an unprecedented vaccination effort.
“Kylie was like ‘Yeah, we can vaccinate the entire jail in one day, let’s do it.’ And then made it happen,” Lewis said.
But it wasn’t just jails and homeless shelters impacted by the spread of hepatitis A; the disease was circulating among people living outside.
The two launched what they dubbed the “backpack brigade.” They converted a vaccine storage cooler into a backpack, stashed the rest of the requisite materials in a second backpack and hit the streets looking for unsheltered people under bridges and in encampments near the Spokane River.
The hepatitis A campaign proved extremely valuable when COVID-19 hit.
In 2020, Kingsbury and Lewis led the effort to conduct outreach in shelters, screening guests for possible symptoms and testing people if necessary – all in hopes of preventing and limiting outbreaks.
Susan Sjoberg, a disease prevention program manager who retired from the health district in November, described Lewis and Kingsbury’s work as “a brilliant, compassionate response.” She stressed how important it was for the screening to be brought directly to shelters, rather than forcing a person experiencing homelessness to decide between a shelter bed and going to get a COVID-19 test.
“What kind of a choice is that? It isn’t a choice, and they recognized that,” Sjoberg said.
Health officials had to not only build a team of volunteers and develop a way to screen shelter guests for COVID-19 but form a plan for what happens when someone tests positive, establish how to isolate them from others and conduct contact tracing to warn people who might have been exposed to the virus.
Dena Carr, who manages House of Charity, said the shelter would not have been able to stay open without Lewis and Kingsbury. She recalled the shelter’s first COVID-19 outbreak last winter, which threatened the health of its guests and rattled employees.
“(Kingsbury and Lewis) were exhausted, and they were tired, and they were still serving people with so much kindness and compassion and offering staff so much reassurance and support. I really think it saved people’s lives, specifically our patrons,” Carr said.
Lewis and Kingsbury were no strangers to House of Charity, having helped the shelter develop a social distancing plan and contact-tracing protocol. When the outbreak hit, they helped work through the contact-tracing list. They were at House of Charity several days in a row, “testing and retesting people,” Carr recalled.
If they knew they would be at the shelter when Carr was working, “they would stop and buy me a little treat at the store, just remembering that I had needs, too,” Carr said.
After navigating the early months of the pandemic, the focus shifted to vaccination, including organizing clinics.
To date, the monumental effort has resulted in 1,986 vaccines administered to people experiencing homelessness or working at shelters.
One silver lining of the pandemic for Kingsbury was when she worked with staff at the city of Spokane to develop a way to track the vaccination status of guests in local shelters. It helped direct resources toward unvaccinated people, but also showed the vaccination rates in shelters were at times better than those of the broader community.
Like other public health officials, Kingsbury has had to address skepticism about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.
People who are homeless are a cross section of the general population, Lewis noted. Some fear side effects of the vaccine, some are indifferent and others don’t pay enough attention to the news to understand how many people have died of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from static, so the health district’s response has had to shift as well. More than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, guidance for congregate settings continues to evolve.
Lately, Lewis has been working to ensure access to testing communitywide. She helped coordinate the establishment of the free testing sites at Spokane Falls Community College and the Spokane County fairgrounds as well as a federal program to send free rapid tests straight to the home of any Spokane County resident.
It’s difficult to quantify success when it comes to disease prevention, but Kingsbury and Lewis’ efforts have been praised by their colleagues in public health and shelter staff.
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