Coronavirus testing to step up among people experiencing homelessness

More testing will mean need for more places for people without homes to recover from the coronavirus.
6 min. read
A shelter at 4330 East 48th Ave., pictured May 15, 2020 when it was being operated by the Salvation Army, was later taken over by the Denver Rescue Mission. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city of Denver and its partners will soon be administering coronavirus tests to more people experiencing homelessness.

"This is an effort to help protect those that are negative" for the coronavirus, said Kristen Baluyot, the Salvation Army's Denver metro social services director.

Except for a pilot earlier this month at a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness, only people who have exhibited symptoms of a respiratory disease have been tested by the city at shelters in Denver, in part because of lack of resources and staff. Baluyot said a shelter near 48th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard that her organization has been operating for men was tentatively set to begin testing people regardless of whether they have symptoms on Monday. (That shelter, where 70 to 100 men have been sleeping each night since the coronavirus outbreak began, will eventually be converted into a site where people without homes who need a place to recover from COVID-19 can stay away from others.)

In addition, staff from the Denver health department will be at the Urban Peak shelter on Tuesday to test residents and staff regardless of how they're feeling, said Christina Carlson, CEO of the nonprofit that runs the shelter and other services for young people experiencing homelessness.

Urban Peak is among three Denver shelters where COVID-19 outbreaks -- defined as two or more cases in a 14-day period -- have been confirmed by the state. According to the state, Urban Peak has had two cases among residents and none among staff. A shelter at the National Western Complex operated by the Denver Rescue Mission has had 15 cases among staff and none among residents. New Genesis shelter has had cases among seven resident and one death of a person who tested positive that has not yet been confirmed as a COVID-19 death. Two probable cases have been detected but not confirmed among New Genesis staff.

The state confirmed the outbreak at New Genesis on April 20. On May 13, the Denver and state health departments conducted follow-up testing at New Genesis and found nine positive and 82 negative cases. The results of five tests were still being awaited, Amber Campbell, spokeswoman for the city health department, said in an email Friday.

"We are working with the facility to isolate the people who tested positive from others until they are no longer infectious," Campbell added.

Heather Burke, a spokeswoman for the city, said Friday that 299 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19, and six of those who tested positive have died.

The large shelter for men at the National Western Complex and one nearby for women at the Coliseum, both opened since the coronavirus outbreak began, will for now continue to test only people who exhibit symptoms.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which has been conducting the testing at National Western and the Coliseum, was "still waiting to ... ramp up supplies and alternative locations for folks," said Cathy Alderman, the coalition's vice president of communications and public policy.

"The critical piece is just setting up places for people to go," she said.

Wider testing is seen as one of the key tools needed to slow the coronavirus. People experience homelessness often have weakened immune symptoms because of their living conditions and they are often older and have other health concerns that put them at greater risk of suffering the worst effects of COVID-19.

Britta Fisher, head of Denver's housing department, said a $1 million Kaiser Permanente grant announced Thursday may have helped make the wider testing possible. The Kaiser money is earmarked for expanding testing of people experiencing homelessness and tracing of those with whom they may have been in contact; providing places for people to recover; and paying for supplies for cleaning shelters.

The healthcare company had been discussing contributing to a city fund to address homelessness and housing needs, said Mike Ramseier, president of Kaiser Permanente in Colorado.

"We've got a growing (homelessness) crisis not only across the country but in our home state,"  Ramseier said. "We quickly committed to the fund. And then the world changed."

In the pilot study May 4 in Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless tested 52 men and women, whether they showed symptoms, at the St. Francis Center day shelter in Five Points. Of the 45 who showed no symptoms, 12, or about 26 percent, tested positive. Two of the seven people who exhibited symptoms tested positive.

The coalition and other nonprofits have worked with the city to get people experiencing homelessness who are affected by the coronavirus outbreak into hotel rooms. Fisher, the city's housing director, said 690 rooms had been secured as of Thursday and another 140 would soon be available. The city has said it needs some 3,000 such rooms.

The coalition and a city logistics staff have been helping the Salvation Army prepare for testing and converting the 48th Avenue facility into a a space for people who have tested positive and don't need hospitalization, but need more support than can be provided in a hotel.

"This is going to be a significant change," the Salvation Army's Baluyot said, saying the shift from shelter to care facility would follow within a few days of the expanded testing.

She said the facility would likely have a capacity of 200, but ramp up slowly to that number. Men who have been spending nights at the facility who test negative would be shifted to National Western, she said.

Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, had said the Colorado Convention Center could be a good care facility for people experiencing homelessness.

The state has designated the convention center as a field hospital to accommodate any surge in COVID cases, and it seemed unlikely space would be spared there for people experiencing homelessness.

"At the end of the day, having this field hospital in place ensures that not only we can ensure adequate healthcare will be available to Coloradans in their time of need but allows us to increase economic activity knowing the hospital capacity is there shall it be needed," Conor Cahill, Polis's press secretary, said in an email in response to a Denverite query about whether the convention center was being considered as a respite space for people experiencing homelessness.

"The goal of the stay at home order was to flatten the curve and to buy us time in order to increase health care capacity, increase testing capabilities and develop sustainable social distancing practices," Cahill said. "Although, Colorado has been successful at flattening the curve and expanding medical surge capacity. It's important to note that COVID-19 is a novel pandemic that is rapidly evolving and we are constantly learning new things about this virus. As the saying goes: "hope for the best but prepare for the worst."

The convention center field hospital was initially scheduled to have 2,000 beds, but that has been reduced to 600 because updated modeling has lowered expectations of the number of patients who might need hospitalization.

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