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CDC Warns of Coronavirus Spread in Homeless Shelters

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By Jorge Casuso

April 23, 2020 -- Isolating the homeless in shelters -- as Los Angeles has been doing -- could further the spread of the coronavirus, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC's "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" -- based on tests conducted in 19 homeless shelters nationwide -- found that the virus was prevalent among 25 percent of the 1,192 residents and 11 percent of the 313 staff members tested.

At one San Francisco shelter, 66 percent of the 143 residents tested were positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, the report said. That compares with the 5.7 cases per 100,000 residents reported in San Francisco County.

Samoshel, Santa Monica's emergency homeless shelter -- which has cut the number of beds by more than half and instituted stringent measures -- has had no cases of the coronavirus, shelter officials reported.

"In the United States, approximately 1.4 million persons access emergency shelter or transitional housing each year," the CDC report said. "These settings can pose risks for communicable disease spread."

The report, authored by 21 medical experts, notes that "homelessness poses multiple challenges that can exacerbate and amplify the spread of COVID-19.

"Homeless shelters are often crowded, making social distancing difficult," the report said.

"Many persons experiencing homelessness are older or have underlying medical conditions, placing them at higher risk for severe COVID-19–associated illness."

The report recommends that homeless service providers test residents and staff for the virus and "implement recommended infection control practices."

Shelters should "apply social distancing measures including ensuring residents’ heads are at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart while sleeping, and promote use of cloth face coverings among all residents.

"These measures become especially important once ongoing COVID-19 transmission is identified within communities where shelters are located," the report said.

In Santa Monica, The People Concern -- which runs Samoshel, as well as two transitional housing facilities -- has been following the guidelines set by the CDC and County Public Health officials, said executive director John Maceri.

The three facilities also have reduced the number of residents during the coronavirus emergency.

At both the Cloverfield Services Center and Turning Point -- where residents occupy dormatory style rooms -- capacity has been reduced from 55 to fewer than 40 residents, according to Maceri.

At Samoshel, which has an open-floor plan, the number of residents has been reduced from 70 before the coronavirus emergency to 30.

Partitions have been erected between beds, and -- as at the other two Santa Monica facilities -- residents and staff are supplied with gloves, masks and sanitizers and encouraged to wash their hands frequently, Maceri said.

Body temperature is also taken every four hours and surfaces are sanitized several times a day, he said.

None of the residents or staff at Samoshel has displayed symptoms of infections, according to Maceri. No tests for the virus have been conducted.

That will change as tests become more readily available -- with the number administered in the County jumping from fewer than 30,000 on April 10 to more than 90,000.

"Widespread testing is becoming more available," Maceri said. "It's not surprising we're going to see more positive tests."

The CDC report comes as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garceti moves ahead with plans to turn dozens of city recreation centers into homeless shelters, despite warnings from critics who echo the report's concerns.

City officials, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday, "remain convinced that homeless people are safer in shelters than on the streets because it’s easier for outreach workers and medical professionals to provide care."

Unlike Samoshel, the 20 converted shelters in Los Angeles that have opened are 97 percent full and do not have partitions separating the beds.

Maceri believes it makes little difference whether the homeless are living in shelters or on the streets, as long as they are following health protocols to slow the spread of the virus.

"Both can be good if you are following the properr practices and both can be bad if you are not following the proper practices," he said.

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