Homeless shelter staff and public health experts have raised concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus among the 550,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. Medical researchers estimate that homeless people are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population due to limited access to hand sanitizer or clean water and crowding in shelters.

Standard precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19—social distancing, working from home, and frequently washing your hands—are nearly impossible for people living in homeless shelters or outdoors. Shelters are low on supplies like hand sanitizer and face masks, and many of the people living in them are older, longtime smokers or chronically ill—high-risk categories for COVID-19.

“People experiencing homelessness not only have a set of challenges that make it really hard to do what we ask—stay home when you are sick, wash your hands frequently, talk to your medical provider if you are feeling ill—but they are in worse health than many other people,”  said Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s director of public health.

In the past, cities with large homeless populations have seen deadly outbreaks of Hepatitis A and typhus, but the coronavirus pandemic presents a new challenge. New York City has instructed shelters to screen residents for symptoms and isolate those with COVID-19 “as much as possible.” Dallas has opened a new temporary overnight shelter to aid in social distancing efforts. Los Angeles, a city with nearly 45,000 people counted as unsheltered, is considering increasing the number of outdoor hand-washing stations. San Francisco plans to use motor homes to house quarantined people.

But these limited measures have not reassured shelter staff. “We’re just saying our prayers,” said Bob McElroy, head of a San Diego homeless shelter. “If it gets in here it would be a disaster.”

Sources: New York Times 3/12/20; The Texas Tribune 3/18/20; USA Today 3/14/20

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