Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in people experiencing homelessness

From Leo Flor, Director of the Department of Community and Human Services.

No new cases of COVID-19 overnight in the homeless community.

For the first time in over a month, Public Health—Seattle & King County’s overnight case count report found no new cases of COVID-19 reported among people experiencing homelessness in King County. The first day in weeks without a single new COVID-19 case amongst persons experiencing homelessness is an encouraging sign for our region’s collective health, and is proof that our shared efforts are making a difference.  Homeless service providers, healthcare workers, and staff from cities and the county are working together and making a difference. The novel coronavirus reminds us how interconnected we all are, and it is that same interconnection that undergirds our successes.

Fast Action

Without knowing how the coronavirus would affect the nation or our region, but acting on Public Health advice and aware of the devastation being experienced elsewhere in the world, King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a State of Emergency on March 1, 2020. He directed County staff to act decisively to prevent the spread of the virus in our communities and to preserve our hospital beds for those most acutely ill.

Those actions included a focused response to the ongoing crisis of homelessness in King County, including training for local shelter and homeless services agencies in sanitation and social distancing guidelines, and the creation of rapid response teams to quickly dispatch to any location that appeared to have an outbreak, including congregate locations like adult family homes, long-term care facilities, and homeless shelters and day centers.  King County and the City of Seattle also worked together to open new spaces to allow shelter stayers to spread further apart to decrease their risk of transmission.

DCHS Director Leo Flor talking with King County Executive Dow Constantine at the Interbay facility

Preventing the Spread

On March 10, King County opened the first of several isolation, quarantine and recovery facilities to ensure that anyone who is not able to isolate and quarantine in their own home, either because it would jeopardize the health of another household member or because they do not have a home, would have a place to rest and recover.  Five have opened and more than 400 residents have stayed in a safe and supportive place instead of sleeping while infectious or possibly infectious in congregate settings or in homes with vulnerable family members.  Every person safely isolated away from the rest of the community contributed to slowing the spread of the illness in our region.

Hotels as Shelter

The County also moved to break up the high concentrations of the most vulnerable people staying in the larger congregate homeless shelters, recognizing the danger of virus transmission from sleeping in close quarters. Additional space was created, including a new shelter opening on Elliott Avenue in Seattle. The county also acted to move more than 600 high COVID-risk people from congregate shelters into hotel rooms in Seattle, SeaTac, Bellevue and Renton. The focus on flattening the curve and slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our community is working. More than 200 individuals have been tested at the Renton hotel, and NOT ONE came back positive for COVID. Just as important as their own room, their own shower, meals and 24/7 case management, these individuals now have stability and a renewed sense of dignity. Many are beginning treatment programs and others have been able to go back to work.

The steps we are taking to help the people experiencing homelessness across our region are making a difference – slowing the spread of the disease, and saving lives. The human connections that this virus exploits will also be how we beat it.