People experiencing homelessness in Kanawha County are familiar with how quick public health threats can spread from person to person. As the new coronavirus spreads, those who work with homeless populations are preparing for what the outbreak could mean for staff members and the people who rely on them daily.
In West Virginia, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19. So far, eight residents have been tested for the virus. Seven of those results have been negative and one result was pending Wednesday night.
For Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, a day shelter in Charleston for homeless people, an eventual infection — and spread — of the virus seems inevitable.
“We anticipate that it will come, and it will move quickly through the community,” Allen said Wednesday. “We’re concerned, right now, with mitigating that risk for our staff — five of them are over 50 [years old], you know — and doing what we can to lessen community spread.”
Covenant House already has developed and partially implemented a two-phase plan to help lower the risk of infections.
Phase I includes increasing sanitizing efforts inside the facility, keeping tissues and hand soap available on every desk, and ensuring that anyone who visits Covenant House exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 is connected to the shelter’s on-site clinic, run by West Virginia Health Right.
“The situation is evolving, with new information available daily. At this point, there is no immediate concern onsite. Our doors are open and we continue to be a place of refuge for all who seek it,” Phase I reads. “We first and foremost care deeply about the health and well-being of our staff, volunteers and guests.”
Allen said details of Phase II of the plan will be released once cases of COVID-19 are present in the community.
“We will alter our practices as developments come to light,” she said.
There is reason to believe area homeless people will be at high risk for infection and transmission of the disease, Allen said. Many already suffer from respiratory illnesses, including asthma, as well as diseases that can weaken immune systems, like diabetes and hepatitis.
As the community learned through recent hepatitis and HIV clusters in the area, it can be difficult to connect vulnerable populations to the care they need.
Health Right Director Angie Settle said the clinic is looking at how it assesses patients and performs intakes of people who might be exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
“Since there haven’t been any cases, we haven’t changed our procedures, but it is something that we’re thinking about,” Settle said. “We need to recognize that this is a risky population — it is. We have to be cognizant of that.”
On Wednesday, Dr. Cathy Slemp, West Virginia’s health officer and commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health, said state leaders have been discussing with local health departments and care providers, like Health Right and Covenant House, how to provide resources to homeless people.
“We’re helping provide [facilities] guidance on how to answer some of these questions, including how we promote access to good hygiene in environments where that’s not easy,” Slemp said. “It’s going to be different place to place, shelter to shelter, but we’re aware of the risks.”
West Virginia has taken other precautions as multiple coronavirus cases have been confirmed in surrounding states. Jeff Sandy, secretary of Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, announced at a news conference that, starting Wednesday, there is a ban on visitation at West Virginia correctional facilities. Lawyers meeting with clients will be able to do so, Sandy said, but they are urged to set up video conferences, if possible.
Universities across West Virginia have announced physical class cancellations and extended spring breaks in recent days to try and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
So far, Slemp said, the state is not at the level of canceling any large events or making serious changes to day-to-day activities, but “the situation is fluid.”
“We don’t know what will come next week, tomorrow, but we are prepared,” Slemp said. “We’re monitoring the situation and we will act as needed.”
When asked why more testing hasn’t been occurring, Slemp said there simply haven’t been enough cases that meet the threshold to require testing.
Slemp and DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said it’s nearly inevitable that West Virginia will have confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
“We [in West Virginia] are at a relatively low risk. We don’t have a lot of international travel, and that reduces our risk,” Crouch said. However, “We are going to see [COVID-19], here eventually, we know that, and our goal now is to be prepared.”
At Wednesday’s news conference, state officials pushed the fact that different agencies are prepared, yet were sparse on specifics of what that preparation looks like.
For Allen, with Covenant House, she and those who work with her feel as though they’re in a holding pattern.
“We have sometimes 200 people a day visit us here. My first priority is the staff, making sure they’re safe, then focusing on lessening a community spread as much as we can if and when it comes to that,” Allen said. “We’re listening to the experts, we’re following the science. For now, that’s all we can do.”