Burlington County Mega-Site Introduces Sensory Rooms for Vaccine Recipients with Special Needs

After a year spent mostly at home with limited in-person social interaction, a visit to a bustling, unfamiliar vaccine clinic can be a bit overwhelming, especially for those with special needs. In response, organizers of the Burlington County COVID-19 Vaccine Mega-Site created sensory rooms for individuals with autism, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions. The goal is to ensure a stress-free experience for both special guests and the people who care for them.

“Just as we have wheelchairs available for those with physical limitations, we felt it important to create a welcoming environment that considers the needs of individuals who are easily overstimulated by bright, busy spaces,” said Phyllis Worrell, emergency preparedness coordinator for Virtua Health.

The sensory rooms are conveniently located, but set apart from the general vaccination observation area. Virtua staff, including team members from Virtua’s pediatric rehabilitation services unit, designed the space to be soothing and free of unwanted stimuli. Organizers painted the walls a muted shade of maroon and reduced the overhead lighting. A range of soft seating options is available, from beanbag chairs to low-to-the-ground “gaming” chairs.

“So far, the sensory rooms have been well-received by vaccine recipients and their families. I applaud the mega-site organizers for being broad-minded in their vision and recognizing that different people experience the world in different ways,” said Maria Emerson, director of rehabilitation services at Virtua.

Virtua Health, the health care partner for the mega-site, also created a resource page on its website to provide guidance to guests with special needs. This includes a “picture schedule” that caregivers can review with the vaccine recipient to help establish who they will see and what they will experience at their appointment.

Virtua experts also provide training to mega-site staff on strategies to best support community members with special needs, ranging from hearing and visual impairments to cognitive challenges.

“We know people with the same diagnosis can be remarkably different from one another. For that reason, we encourage the families of our guests with special needs to help prepare their loved one for their vaccine visit. We also invite them to make the onsite team aware of any assistance they may require; our staff will be glad to help however we can,” Worrell said.

On February 26, Victoria McGrath of Maple Shade had a “very positive” experience when accompanying her son, 22-year-old Noah, to his second-dose vaccine appointment. Noah has Down syndrome and is afraid of needles.

“In addition to creating a special space, the staff engaged us, explained every step in the process, and treated us with respect. That meant a lot,” McGrath said. “I went on Facebook to let other parents know how well-run the mega-site is, and I saw that another mom had beat me to it. Her experience was just as good as ours.”

The Burlington County COVID-19 Vaccine Mega-Site is one of six state-run mega-sites in New Jersey. Most days, the Burlington facility – located inside a former department store at the Moorestown Mall –distributes more than 3,000 vaccine doses, exceeding the state’s initial goal of 2,400 doses per day.

The Burlington County Mega-Site is a partnership among the New Jersey Department of Health, New Jersey All-Hazards Incident Management Team, New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, Burlington County, the New Jersey National Guard, and Virtua Health.