If you picked up a bug this year, you’re not alone. Healthy adults, according to the Mayo Clinic, can expect two to three colds each year. If you have reliable shelter, it’s probably not a big deal.
If you don’t? Good luck.
Unlike the flu, which is much more serious but can often be prevented through inoculation, the common cold is viewed as a minor nuisance, not a major health risk. Among our local homeless population, though, a mild cold can become something much more serious.
Collectively, we rarely do much to help alleviate that condition.
Part of the issue is that even the so-called “enhanced” shelters touted by the mayor’s office are breeding grounds for viruses that cause the common cold; they house dozens of people in tight, un-partitioned spaces. Additionally, because the overwhelming majority of shelters provide only overnight services, recovering from a cold in a shelter is extremely difficult.
This isn’t a new issue.
In a 1988 study called “Homelessness, Health, and Human Needs,” the authors noted that “even the need for bed rest is complicated, if not impossible, when the patient does not have a bed or, as is the case in many shelters for the homeless, must leave the shelter in the early morning.”
King County has an influenza protocol for shelters that is designed to limit the spread of the flu and “flu-like symptoms,” which may include the common cold. This protocol includes flu recovery spaces, wherein folks get the necessary bedrest that they need. But resources are limited: the operation of even one flu recovery center in all of King County is “contingent on the availability of resources to support the organization’s response costs.”
The treatments for a cold are also hard to come by; drinking “plenty of fluids” is tough when access to clean water is limited, particularly in the winter when public water fountains are shut down. And forget about cold medicine itself — most service providers are hesitant to hand out even over-the-counter medication if there’s any possibility that it might be abused. Plus, as anyone who’s had to purchase it recently knows, it’s expensive.
None of this is new information. Knowledge about the causes and treatments for the common cold are as common as the cold itself. But there’s little motivation to take direct action and provide the specific needs of our unsheltered neighbors.
Merely suggesting that we provide clean drinking water, spaces to rest during the day or medication is enough to rile up the voices who believe it’s a waste of money.
But unlike a lot of our housed neighbors, the common cold does not discriminate.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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