Homeless at 'double risk' of getting, spreading coronavirus

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Reporters and photographers work Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at the site in South Seattle where King County will be placing several temporary housing units like the one shown here to house patients undergoing treatment and isolation in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SALEM, Ore. – They often don't have places to wash their hands, struggle with health problems and crowd together in grimy camps.

That's what makes homeless people particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Almost 200,000 people live in those conditions in the United States, according to a White House report, with Washington state, California and Oregon among the states most affected by homelessness as income inequality grows and housing costs rise.

And — in a possible recipe for disaster — the new virus has hit hardest on the West Coast, where nearly all of the nation's deaths have occurred. Health officials have not yet reported coronavirus outbreaks among homeless populations, but tuberculosis and other diseases have swept through them in the past, underscoring their vulnerability.

Yet few communities that are trying to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus have rolled out plans to protect the homeless and give them a place to recover in isolation, which would prevent them from passing it on.

"They are double risk. One is a risk to themselves, the other is a risk to society,” said Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

King County, which includes Seattle and has seen most of the deaths in the U.S., is one of the few places that's taken action: installing more than a dozen module units where infected homeless people can recover, some on county-owned land flanked by apartment buildings. The units, roughly the size of a mobile home that accommodate several people, were previously used by oil workers in Texas. County officials also bought a motel where coronavirus patients can recover in isolation.

That approach needs to be replicated in many more places, said Chi, who has been closely following the global outbreak that originated in China.

“This should be treated as an emergency policy, not as a permanent solution to homelessness, but more of framing it as a solution for containing the spread,” Chi said.