Massive efforts from the City, state and provider community to test and monitor the homeless and addicted population on Mass/Cass for COVID-19 infection has rolled out this week, and so far they have reported no infections.
With the opioid epidemic on the corridor in full swing (though still down in numbers of people due to the colder weather) many in the South End and within the recovery services community were quite worried that an outbreak within this vulnerable population could become disastrous.
On Saturday, Boston Health Care for the Homeless opened two large tents on the parking lot of the Southampton Shelter in a 24-hour, all hands on deck effort, to create an area to test and quarantine those on the corridor immediately.
It was a “Herculean” effort, said Jenn Tracy of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services on Tuesday during an Opiate Working Group teleconference.
“As of now, we have started screening anyone with symptoms,” she said. “We have all negatives so far.”
One of the tents is used to house people with symptoms who have been tested and are awaiting results. The other tent is for people to be quarantined if necessary.
“Unless things have changed rapidly, we have had all negatives in our testing,” she reaffirmed. “We have about 70 homeless people waiting on tests. Boston Health Care for the Homeless and BMC (Boston Medical Center) have been administering those tests.”
Meanwhile, she said AHOPE Needle Exchange has been moved outside to a canopy on the street doing harm reduction services there, and also assisting a vigorous campaign by the street team and BMC’s Project Trust to look for anyone who might be exhibiting symptoms on the streets.
“We’re doing our best to reach everyone to do screening and to reduce other infections,” she said. “We’re also trying to get as many people as we can into temporary housing.”
At the moment, Miriam Komaromy of the Grayken Center said they have secured beds for quarantine at the McGinness House and can access up to 50 beds there if an outbreak in the homeless community expands.
They are also trying to get healthy people out of the shelters and into other housing so that the facility can be set up with the proper distancing between people.
She also added that on Tuesday, BMC began in-house testing for COVID-19 that allows for quicker results and won’t require people to wait for days in the temporary tent structure.
“That will speed it up,” she said. “People will be able to come in and be tested and then find out the result in the hospital while they wait.”
Added Tracy, “The next big push is following the isolated folks and quarantining those that test positive and are COVID infected. This is a major effort to pick up people quickly when they have symptoms and not re-introduce them to the larger population who are not sick.”
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Moderator Steve Fox said there is a lot of interest from the neighborhood in facilities that might be identified for patient overflow if an outbreak occurs in the homeless population.
Tracy said everything is on the table now, and most of that effort is being led by the state.
“Newton Pavilion is on that list for sure,” she said. “Many things are being considered. The Shattuck is pretty full…They were looking at other spaces in the Shattuck that aren’t being used as a possibility. All cities and the state are looking now at what properties we own and what of those can be scaled up.”
She said Mayor Martin Walsh has asked that they locate 1,000 beds for people who are homeless, for homeless families and for elderly who need treatment.”
Fox said it’s important in this time for neighbors not to be surprised when government spaces or buildings begin to be commandeered for use to quarantine people.
“I think it’s important that no one be surprised if we start to see underutilized and lesser used spaces start to be readied, such as the Newton Pavilion,” he said. “I think it would be helpful to try to set expectations so it doesn’t come as a surprise to people if it does happen.”
While things for the Working Group are up in the air as to in-person meetings, the group agreed to attempt another teleconference meeting in April to get updates on how the COVID-19 response has been going.