Homeless in Utah Part 2: As winter sets in, are Utah’s unsheltered safe from COVID-19?

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Homelessness during a Utah winter is dangerous enough, but adding a pandemic to the mix creates a whole new set of challenges.

First, a few figures.

In the second week of December, Salt Lake County reported 5,422 tests administered within the homeless population. Of those tests, 65 came back positive; the homeless represented .81% of the confirmed cases in Salt Lake County. The county also reports 690 recovered cases since the start of the pandemic.

Overall, there have been 1,708 people who have stayed in quarantine facilities so far this year, with 61 in the second week of December. There have also been 3,354 hospitalizations with 81 homeless people currently in the hospital at the time of this publication.

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And while those numbers are considerably lower than the general population, local agencies are collaborating on precautions to ensure the homeless remain safe as they begin to seek shelter from the cold.

Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Utah tells ABC4, “For months we’ve been working with Salt Lake County health department identified homeless individuals as a vulnerable population, we’ve been coordinating with Unified command, Salt Lake County unified command, to get the protective equipment that we needed in our resource centers, to understand the protocols of cleanliness, hand-washing, the PPE and how to use it, mask-wearing, and of course plexiglass insertions, we’ve done a lot in our resource centers to prevent the spread.”

There is also a process of teaching, according to Bray. “Of course you have to teach the people who are coming in what the expectations are around mask-wearing and that sort of thing within the facility,” she explains.

With the virus being potentially active in people who do not show symptoms, testing also becomes an invaluable tool. “We’ve done a pretty good job of testing on a regular basis with the support of 4th Street Clinic,” Bray says. ” You know they have a mobile medical unit and they bring it by once a week or so, instead of doing regular medical exams we kind of shifted it into doing testing events.”

Nicholas Rupp from Salt Lake County adds, “Salt Lake County works closely with homeless resource centers to identify COVID cases through regular testing and provide places infected and exposed individuals can isolate or quarantine, respectively.”

Bray added to what Rupp said, “If someone tests positive, we have them go to the quarantine and isolation unit run by Salt Lake County right away to prevent more people from getting sick. I think we’ve done a terrific job of limiting the spread in these congregate facilities”

The resource centers have taken steps to move beds to the second floors of buildings where beds were never intended to create the social distancing necessary to keep people safe and at the same time keep the facilities at the capacities they were supposed to be.

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When agencies coordinate to move Utah’s homeless out of the cold without being extra careful, there is a risk of putting more people in danger. They have to follow the same COVID protocols all of us do but are dealing with an environment that keeps changing.

Bray says, “We’ve been adjusting all of our interventions to accommodate the COVID guidelines we are all following.”

But COVID-19 is not the only danger that is faced by Utah’s Homeless and the agency workers who are trying to help.

According to Salt Lake County Health Spokesperson Nicholas Rupp, “Social distancing and hygiene like hand washing can be challenging for unsheltered individuals, so that presents an increased risk of disease transmission; not just COVID but all infectious diseases.”

But coronavirus precautions to keep the unhoused safe don’t end with the shelter staff, the same protective measures also extend to Utah’s Finest.

Salt Lake Police Sgt. Keith Horrocks tells ABC4, “For officers on patrol, the danger of contacting the virus is on every call. It is not just in dealing with the homeless.”

He continues, “Police officers will have PPE on, in any situation an officer interacts, it is an immense risk for officers, they also wash their hands and use sanitizer constantly.”

In dealing with abatements and getting people to shelter, the danger is compounded because the officers could be facing more than COVID-19, they can also face dangers created by unsanitary conditions and drug paraphernalia.

Lt Bill Manzanares adds, “There’s always a chance even if an officer wears a mask and gloves up they can test positive, a few officers have caught the virus. If we glove up, and mask up hopefully we don’t get it.”

Lantern House facility in Ogden

And while winter has only began the shelters are already beginning to fill. Bray says Volunteers of America, Utah is seeing more individuals than they saw last year at this time. “COVID has been a difficult problem because, any congregate setting, is trying to limit the number of people who are in it, so they do not spread the virus to each other right? We move people upstairs we can handle the same capacity.” She adds, “The fewer beds we have in the congregational settings, there are more people trying to figure out where they can go.”

Bray goes into more detail about the overflow challenge at local shelters in Part 1 of ABC4’s Homeless in Utah digital series.

With the vaccine now starting to become available ABC4 asked if there were plans to vaccinate the homeless. Nicholas Rupp confirmed there were, “Yes, we have plans to vaccinate people experiencing homelessness, and the second shot will be tracked in the individual’s immunization record in the Utah State Immunization Information System (USIIS) just like anyone else.”

This winter, there are places where people experiencing homelessness can get help. Several agencies are working together to help people get out of the harsh cold and stay safe from the pandemic, and begin to vaccinate people against the virus that has slammed the entire state.

For more on how you can help, don’t miss Part 3 of ABC4’s Homeless in Utah digital series on Wednesday, December 23.

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