COOS COUNTY — Every morning at the homeless camp in Harmony United Methodist Church’s parking lot, Pastor Donald Ford screens individuals for COVID-19.
Screening people for the disease that’s shutting down countries across the world is not the same as sampling or testing for the disease. Screening, for Ford, is asking people if they have basic symptoms for the virus.
“I go around asking if they have a fever, if they have a cough that isn’t their smoker’s cough, if they are short of breath,” Ford explained. “If they say ‘no’ then I believe them and put a check by their name. So far, none have had symptoms.”
Ford has been doing these morning screenings for the past week. Of course, from Ford’s perspective he fears that homeless individuals may be some of the last to be tested for the novel coronavirus.
“Who will go around checking the homeless for symptoms?” he asked. “They don’t have family or a personal provider they can go to who says ‘let me screen you for your temperature, oxygen level,’ that kind of thing. When they go to clinics, they are last on the list. They won’t be screened too much or tested unless it’s obvious that they need to be tested.”
For now, he says he has been directed by a physician to take any homeless individuals to get immediate care if their temperature is over 100.4 degrees with oxygen level under 90.
“I’m hoping to get a thermometer, one that you can use on the forehead without touching them, and get an oxygenator that you put on your finger to get the oxygen level,” Ford said.
Today, Ford plans on closing and locking the downstairs entrance of the church since the hallways have become congested, which posed a health hazard. To give people space and decrease COVID-19 transmission, portable toilets were moved onto the property to compensate for the locked access to church bathrooms.
“The bottom line is, if one (homeless individual) gets (COVID-19), they all get it for the most part,” Ford said. “You can’t have social distancing with them around … they are too friendly with one another. In any camp, at the church or the Nancy Devereux Center or on a hillside, it will be there and most will get it pretty quick.”
Tara Johnson, executive director at the Nancy Devereux Center that feeds and provides services to the local homeless population, and Ford are both on the homeless taskforce organized by Coos Health and Wellness. This taskforce is addressing important questions on how to handle the homeless population once the pandemic starts to spread in the area.
Ford said the taskforce is currently tackling questions on where to quarantine the homeless if someone in the population is tested positive.
In the meantime, Johnson told The World that the Devereux Center is still serving meals, offering showers and doing laundry. It has increased its sanitation regiments and marks have been placed on the carpet to show people in line how far apart they need to be from each other.
“We removed half our chairs so people can’t sit as close together,” she said. “Unfortunately that doesn’t solve the fact that they are still congregating in groups because those groups are like their family. A lot of people consider their camp their family, so they’re not following the social distancing requests outside of the building.”
When asked how the homeless population feels about the COVID-19 threat, Johnson said very few are concerned.
“The vast majority don’t think it will happen to them,” she said. “That’s because they don’t have access to the news or aren’t seeing it in their inboxes. They aren’t connected that way, so it’s not in their face. They don’t see pictures of Italy where there is casket after casket after casket.”
To push education, Johnson and her staff have spoken to their clients and she plans on printing information and pictures to pass around.
“(COVID-19) has changed the way we’re doing business, like it has so many other people,” Johnson said. “But we’re working with people who aren’t viewing it as a big deal, so it’s harder … Sometimes I think they view it as just another rule, another regulation, another push back, and I’m trying to get them to understand we’re trying to protect them. I hope it doesn’t take one of them getting ill or dying to drive the fact home.”
Even in the face of a world crisis, Johnson called the community to remember to be kind. As she was leaving the Devereux Center the other day, she said there was a gentleman sleeping in the doorway.
“I could have run him off, but he was cold, laying on the pavement and I gave him a cup of coffee and a blanket that was dry,” she said. “He had tears in his eyes and thanked me. I didn’t do anything special. That’s something anyone could do … Ultimately one of the big concerns from the pandemic is the emotional and mental aspects. Isolating is hard. It’s hard not just for people who are homeless but everyone. We all need to show a little extra kindness and gratitude. That extra bit of kindness will go a long way.”