By Desmond Skubi / For The Herald
The number of cases and deaths due to Covid-19 in Washington state have increased markedly in recent days, with nearly 2,500 confirmed diagnoses and more than 120 deaths. Projection of these trends into the near-term future are the basis of the remarkable changes being implemented by local, state and national leaders to slow the spread of the virus.
Washington state, particularly King and Snohomish counties, have been an epicenter of the infection in the United States, significantly because it was introduced into a Kirkland nursing home and spread widely among patients, staff and visitors before the diagnosis was made and containment efforts began.
The homeless population in our community is another vulnerable population that is likely to multiply the cases, deaths and extraordinary costs if prevention and containment efforts are not rapidly implemented. We are behind the curve. I suggest the following strategies to reduce these human and economic costs:
Screening: Organize at least weekly screening for symptoms of Covid-19 at the points of service for homeless folks. Test and isolate those with symptoms until proven not to have the infection. Add homeless status as an indication for testing for those with symptoms of the infection at all testing sites. Assure appropriate places are available to isolate and provide services for people with symptoms of infection until testing is completed and need for quarantine established.
Shelter: Set up shelters with the ability to maintain social distance. Among our neighbors to the north, Bellingham High School has been opened as a site to provide homeless services. Our public junior and senior high schools, which will not be in use for the next several months, should be made available for this use. They have space to maintain social distance, access to showers, sinks and bathrooms to improve hygiene, and kitchens that can prepare meals, building upon our local network of free meals provided by volunteers around our community. It is even possible that much needed laundry facilities could be provided in these locations.
Information: Increase training for staff and volunteers to set up and maintain improved social distancing for our homeless population.
Current shelters, most especially the cold weather shelters, are crowded and lack the space to make possible maintaining proper social distance. They lack showers, and have inadequate bathroom facilities.
We have amazing community meals that volunteer groups provide to serve the homeless. My observation is that most volunteers are in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s and are not adequately trained to protect themselves from infection with Covid-19. The cooking areas are crowded and lack the space for volunteers to maintain a safe distance. The kitchens in our schools would create separation to protect these volunteers from exposure that is not possible in the cramped and inadequate facilities currently in use at some meals. We need to create a cadre of younger, healthy volunteers to interact with the homeless populations and protect the older volunteers preparing the meals.
We need to move rapidly to prevent and contain Covid-19 infections in our homeless populations before this becomes another tragedy that costs the lives of homeless people, the volunteers and staff who serve them, and further spreads the infection in our communities.
Desmond Skubi is a 30-year resident of Everett. Now retired, he was the chief executive of Unity Care NW, a community health center in Whatcom County. He previously served as the executive director of the Community Health Center of Snohomish County and the Washington State Public Health Association. By profession, he was a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife.