When you check into a traditional homeless shelter, you’re likely to encounter one of two scenarios: mat-on-the-floor, where people stretch out for the night on thin mats, tightly bunched together, or the bunk-bed configuration.
In the era of COVID-19, a deadly disease that we now know to be transmitted primarily via microscopic droplets that hang in the air, both layouts seemed dangerous. In the early days, government officials and shelter operators took quick action to de-intensify shelters by spreading people out, constructing plastic shields between families in at least one shelter and even renting motel rooms to give people the safety they needed.
But it was only in mid-September that a team of scientists released preliminary findings suggesting that the response from local officials to space people out and put them in private rooms may have prevented a larger outbreak.
“So far, it is not as severe as it could have potentially been, and as we feared in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Julia Rogers, the lead author of the study released by the Seattle Flu Study, the group that conducted the study.
The team found 29 positive cases out of 1,434 tests in more than a dozen shelters. Nearly 72 percent were asymptomatic, meaning that the people who carried the disease had shown none of the standard symptoms, including a fever and a cough.
While the overall case numbers were low, close to 85 percent of positive cases were detected in places where people slept communally versus in individual rooms, suggesting what housed people have been told since February — the coronavirus is highly transmissible and the most effective way of staying safe is to avoid other people, a luxury that people experiencing homelessness cannot afford without assistance.
Rogers is quick to say that it’s hard to come to conclusions from the preliminary results. First off, people opted in to testing for the coronavirus, meaning it was not a representative sample of people experiencing homelessness. Testing only included shelter inhabitants rather than unsheltered homeless people.
Still, Rogers said, it was important to disseminate the early results of her team’s research.
“We decided to publish these initial findings because we thought there was a public health obligation,” Rogers said.
The Seattle Flu Study has been on the forefront of the COVID-19 outbreak since the disease landed in the United States at the beginning of 2020. The group had been conducting research on the seasonal flu when, according to The New York Times, the first COVID-19 case landed in their backyard. Failing to get government approval, the team began testing for the coronavirus on its own, The Times reported, leading to the first positive result in the nation. It has since been learned that the first case in the U.S. likely arrived in California.
The Seattle Flu Study already had a large number of swabs from symptomatic participants in their study about the seasonal flu. They also had swabs from homeless shelters because they had been collecting samples for the better part of a year to determine how the regular flu spread through shelters.
When the coronavirus appeared in Washington state, researchers shifted their focus from testing and treating the flu to testing for the new, deadly virus.
DESC, the region’s largest shelter provider, has been part of the study since the beginning, when researchers were looking for the seasonal flu. The organization’s people felt fortunate to have a preexisting relationship with the researchers, who were able to provide regular testing to shelter clients on a voluntary basis, DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone said.
“It confirmed for us that the steps we had taken were the right ones: moving people apart from each other and especially putting people in individual rooms,” Malone said.
While the early results confirmed suspicions on how to keep people safe from the deadly virus, they also came out of a study that was not designed to capture the coronavirus. There is still much to be learned about other respiratory disease and how they move through congregate shelters. According to the study, 15 percent of tests came up positive for another virus that causes pneumonia.
The study will continue until mid-2021, unless other funding is identified to keep it going, Rogers said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 30 - Oct. 6, 2020 issue.