Testing for coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness puts spotlight on those with no symptoms

All 14 who tested positive at one shelter were asymptomatic.

The Salvation Army's homeless shelter on 48th Avenue in Northeast Park Hill. May 15, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Salvation Army's homeless shelter on 48th Avenue in Northeast Park Hill. May 15, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Only people who hadn’t shown symptoms were found to be positive for the coronavirus during recent testing at a Denver homeless shelter.

Shelters have mostly only tested people who have exhibited symptoms of a respiratory disease, in part because of a lack of resources and staff. But coronavirus is spreading from people who show no signs of the disease, which prompted the Salvation Army-run shelter near 48th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to begin testing even asymptomatic visitors last week.

The city’s health department oversaw testing of 78 people regardless of symptoms. All 14 who tested positive were asymptomatic. (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.)

“It continues to verify our ongoing concern, which is that we have asymptomatic people in our shelters and we need to get them moved out so they don’t continue to spread the virus,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

The testing at 48th Avenue followed a pilot test earlier in the month that Alderman’s organization conducted at the St. Francis Center day shelter in Five Points. In all, 52 people were tested at St. Francis. Of the 45 who showed no symptoms, 12, or about 26 percent, tested positive. Two of the seven people who exhibited symptoms tested positive.

Kristen Baluyot, the Salvation Army’s Denver metro social services director, said that such results create urgency to conduct even more testing at shelters, but that that is difficult to do without more places to isolate people who test positive. Those who have tested positive in the small widespread testing efforts have been housed in some of the hundreds of hotel rooms the city has secured for people experiencing homelessness who are affected by the coronavirus.

Baluyot said the 48th Avenue shelter, which has recently been hosting fewer than 100 men a night, was closed following last week’s tests so that it could be converted into a 198-bed facility for people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive but show no symptoms. Baluyot said more medical staff was being brought in and the shelter was creating barriers around beds similar to what might be found at a hospital. The facility will reopen on June 8.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has been testing those with symptoms at large shelters set up at the National Western Complex and the nearby Coliseum following the coronavirus outbreak. The coalition is providing other medical services for people experiencing homelessness and is expected to help staff the 48th Avenue shelter when it is reopened.

Alderman said testing everyone who comes to the National Western and Coliseum shelters is the goal.

“We’re moving in that direction. We don’t have the resources to do it yet,” she said, adding that a lack of staffing and a place to move people who test positive are among the main the barriers. “We’re moving as quickly as we can. And that’s not fast enough.”

Alderman 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 a surge in COVID cases.

“Frankly, if the virus continues to spread in these congregant settings (shelters), we could have hospital overload anyway,” Alderman said.

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.

As of Tuesday, a total of 341 people experiencing homelessness in Denver have tested positive for COVID-19, and six have died.

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