By Erica C. Barnett
An alarming increase in COVID cases among people who are homeless has been exacerbated in recent weeks, according to homeless service providers, by rumors that if people enter an isolation and quarantine site operated by county, they will not be allowed to leave.
And even before these rumors began to circulate widely, many homeless people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to go into isolation and quarantine, for reasons ranging from substance use to fear that if they left a camp. , they would lose everything they had – a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent increase in encampment sweeps.
“The resistance, in my experience, has been widespread,” said Dr Cyn Kotarski, medical director of the Public Defender Association. “I haven’t met anyone so far who isn’t afraid and resistant to doing it, and that’s mostly because it’s overwhelming. It can be quite scary to think that you don’t know where you are going or why, especially when you take someone out of their own surroundings and their own community, ”Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner in several efforts to move homeless people to hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.
Although early reports suggest that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in collective neighborhoods like collective shelters, the more contagious delta variant could reverse this trend. In the week ended September 10, King County counted 41 homeless people who tested positive for COVID – an undercount, as this only represents the county’s test events.
According to King County Public Health spokesperson Kate Cole, last week there were 22 active COVID cases associated with camp outbreaks, defined as two or more people who tested positive in a camp – an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments. A examining the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that started in early August and have not declined.
“The facilities are not secure, and the stay is completely optional. When people come in, we say, “Your isolation period is so long, your quarantine period is so long. If you don’t want to stay all the time, let’s talk about it. ‘ —Hedda McClendon, King County
The increase in COVID cases has impacted all parts of the county’s service system. The county public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched, with long waits for transportation and even testing. . According to Hedda McClendon, director of the King County COVID Emergency Services Group, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E team, one of two teams that conducts testing at homeless settlements, is between five and seven days. When a person living in an encampment tests positive, a nearby service provider often has to wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to pick up. in isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they will give up and decide not to go.
Just having someone on the phone, social workers say, can be a challenge. “You call and they take your number, but if you call back it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to” Dawn Shepard, the Southern District Outreach Coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or homeless person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and at that point the person loses interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It takes us about eight hours from coordination to pickup. “
The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has distributed around 500 cellphones to proximity service providers to distribute to customers, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, as well as rapid COVID testing for that people don’t have to. wait days to be tested. Currently, rapid tests are difficult to find and expensive when available.
During this time, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, rose from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” McClendon said, stretching resources. If all the rooms fill up, the county will need to start sorting people based on test results, exposure and other qualifications, turning people down if their cases aren’t serious.
Shepard said that at the start of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see people who lived outside contracting the disease… largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. . Now, however, I think it’s safe to say that with the Delta variant our customers don’t have the same protection as we see it all over town.
Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm they have seen an increase in cases; According to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID is “tearing apart scores of homeless programs and communities,” including the WHEEL women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases over the course of the last few weeks. “We have had to stop making admissions now because of this epidemic,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization was seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet immediate needs during the current crisis.”
Charlene Mitchell, program director at Jan Women’s Shelter and Peter’s Place run by Compass Housing, said the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed zone” while they wait to be taken to the site. in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving homeless people. (Currently the county uses yellow taxis for this purpose). She recalls a recent case where a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed out on the streets and at the bus stop “after family members refused to take him in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who infected everything,” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.
Shepard says she has encountered a growing number of homeless people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed from. “There was this big push, when the segregation and quarantine were opened, that they weren’t going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories going around about what is happening to them. people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt – when I asked who had this experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'” – but says they made an impact nonetheless. . “The great thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me go. »» Continue reading “As COVID cases in camps and shelters increase, many are reluctant to enter county quarantine sites”