Coronavirus and the Homeless

Jake and Kelly check in with volunteers during the annual Point In Time count at Mingus Park in Coos Bay on Jan. 29. Local homeless advocates are on alert and working to keep transients safe amid the coronavirus epidemic.

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COOS BAY — Local homeless advocates are “aware and alert” as they work to keep transients healthy amid the coronavirus epidemic.

At the Nancy Devereux Center, Executive Director Tara Johnson listed out the average number of homeless individuals who show up for meals, supplies and services every day.

“We receive an average of 300 clients each month,” she said. “At any given time, we have 70 people in our facility. While we have 70 people today, tomorrow there might be the same 30 people and 40 different people. That might be 110 people exposed. We have so many people, but they aren’t always the same people every single day.”

Right now, there are no coronavirus cases on the South Coast, but Johnson is trying to stay one step ahead just in case it does find its way to the area.

“We’re aware and alert,” she said. "I think we need to adopt caution.”

Johnson pointed out that the “homeless population is resilient” and she is often surprised by how few of them walk into the center while sick. However, she and center volunteers are encouraging their clients to use hand sanitizer when they enter the nonprofit. Johnson is also working to obtain masks to give to homeless individuals who come in with coughs.

“Our biggest concern is while they are quite healthy, when they are ill they delay seeking medical support,” Johnson said. “We’re going to monitor our clients to make sure that anyone who shows basic signs of flu or virus concerns is strongly encouraged to seek medical support.”

Johnson added that the center plans on reaching out to Coos Health and Wellness to see if there is a plan they can establish for homeless individuals who might need a check-up.

“We’re working with them to do what they recommend,” she said. “But my clients are more concerned about their next meal or where they will sleep. I’ve not heard any clients specifically say they are worried (about coronavirus).”

On the other side of Coos Bay at Harmony United Methodist Church, Pastor Don Ford talked about what the homeless camp would need if the virus ever reaches the area.

“I would need help from the town and county in doing containment if we have to quarantine like everyone else, so we’d have to serve meals for two weeks, not have anyone in or out for two weeks and I’d have a hard time doing that myself,” he said. “I’d need help for the 50 to 60 people here. Most come and go if they want and most have visitors, so it could be a very communicable situation.”

For now, Ford says hand sanitizer is available for people living at the camp and that at this point he isn’t worried.

“I’d be worried if (the coronavirus) was getting closer or if someone in town had it,” he said.

State Response

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and  wrote President Donald Trump requesting financial aid to respond to the coronavirus situation in Oregon, supporting Gov. Kate Brown’s request for federal assistance and resources.

“... While the risk of contracting COVID-19 (coronavirus) remains low, it is critical that Oregonians are advised on science-based precautions to protect themselves and their communities — this includes handwashing and hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when ill, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying current on vaccinations, eating well, and exercising to help our bodies stay resilient,” they wrote.

“Like other states with cases of COVID-19, we are concerned that Oregon does not have a sufficient supply of Personal Protective Equipment should COVID-19 spread more widely among the community, especially in Oregon’s rural and frontier communities,” the letter read. "... We also request flexibility on testing criteria for COVID-19 as covered by FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization to expedite the agency’s permitted us of the CDC diagnostic panel and provide states with the ability to develop and order the materials needed to build and perform their own tests, or use CDC’s template to scale up capacity to conduct tests and produce results more quickly to contain this outbreak.”

The letter expressed additional concern for potential workforce shortages in small rural hospitals where adequate staffing levels is already a struggle. Merkley and DeFazio requested Oregon’s estimated financial need of $10 million per month to support the additional resources needed for state, local and tribal health — in addition to reimbursing the costs already incurred.

This request was made after Merkley, DeFazio, Sen. Ron Wyden and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer announced $500,000 in Centers for Disease Control funding for Oregon to help fight the coronavirus.

“Today’s CDC award is in addition to any funding that will come out of the emergency funding package that was announced today,” read the release. “... Oregon will receive $500,000 in funding out of an initial $25 million awarded by the CDC today. That funding is being awarded to the states that have had the heaviest load in response and preparedness activities so far in the outbreak. The funding can be used for monitoring travelers, data management, lab equipment, supplies, staffing, shipping, and infection control.”

“With now three cases across Oregon, it’s clear that this virus is spreading and that our state will need significant resources to respond effectively and keep Oregonians safe,” said Merkley in the release, who has been pushing for and delivering emergency funding as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to support our communities as they fight this virus, and it’s good news that the CDC is sending initial funding to Oregon today. I will keep pushing fiercely to support Oregon’s needs and make sure the federal government is doing everything it can to respond swiftly and effectively to this outbreak.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-266-6035, or by email at Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.


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