At least two people who are homeless in Denver have tested positive for COVID-19, the fast-spreading illness caused by the new coronavirus, health officials said Friday.
The people are recovering in motel rooms provided by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, but advocates worry that more people are sick and that the city and state are unprepared for a surge of the illness among those without homes or a place to self-quarantine.
“Two positive cases means we probably have more coming,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“We need more guidance from public health on what to do because obviously if these cases begin to rise among this population, and we find out that these positive cases have been in the shelters, then that’s more likely to indicate exposure,” Alderman said. “We’re really starting to feel anxious about what the public health guidelines might be on this.”
To help slow the spread of the coronavirus among Colorado’s unhoused people, the state has been working over the past week to secure more rooms or spaces for people who might otherwise be bunking in crowded shelters or sleeping outdoors in public places. But a coordinated state-wide plan is still not in place.
The most promising effort, an isolation shelter at the Springs Rescue Mission in El Paso County, fell through Friday morning due to insurance issues. Now, the City of Colorado Springs is taking over the project and plans to use an existing city-owned location, said Travis Williams, chief development officer at the Springs Rescue Mission.
Scott Bookman, Colorado health department’s incident commander for COVID-19, said officials from the Department of Human Services are working with local agencies to monitor and control the spread of the virus among people experiencing homelessness. But he didn’t provide specifics.
Gov. Jared Polis on Friday afternoon said that the state is exploring a handful of options to help with hospital overflow and to provide spaces for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus outbreak. Ideas that he tossed out included college dorms and the Colorado Convention Center. He said that the additional space could be used for quarantine, but not for people who need intensive medical attention.
On Friday, the number of cases reached 1,734 with 31 deaths, according to the latest numbers released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Those cases include people who have tested positive or are presumed positive because they are showing symptoms and are in close contact with someone who has the illness. Health officials have been warning for days that there are likely thousands more infected who have not yet been tested.
“We’ve been asking for a response for weeks. And it’s sad that we’ve had to wait for our first (positive) test to get people motivated to do things,” Alderman said.
As of Friday, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless had tested more than 80 people, with two positive cases; 44 still are waiting for results.
Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for Denver’s Office of Emergency Management, confirmed the two positive cases, but did not know whether the patients had resided in homeless shelters or were in close proximity to others.
Alderman said the public health department will investigate where the people who tested positive had been residing and where they might have come in contact with the virus.
Derek Woodbury, communication director for Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, said his department is working to increase supplemental housing and “respite” rooms for people to recover and self-quarantine.
“If someone’s symptomatic or arrives exhibiting symptoms at a shelter, like cold or flu symptoms, we’re trying to get ahead of it and the shelter partners are referring them to the supplemental shelter system that Denver has established,” Woodbury said.
The city currently has 37 beds for the supplemental shelter and 119 respite rooms, Woodbury said.
“I can’t overstress that we’re closely monitoring the amount of supplemental shelter space that might be needed in the coming days and in the coming weeks ahead, and and we’re ready as a city to scale up the inventory of these supplemental shelter beds in order to respond to the needs of our community,” Woodbury said.
Alison George, director of housing for Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, said state and local agencies are continuing to evaluate locations across Colorado.
“It’s a matter of how much work has to be done to the site or the facility or the housing or the hotel,” George said. “And we just haven’t found those right sites quite yet.”
Alderman, who estimates that Denver needs at least 800 rooms, said she’s worried that the positive cases will deter people from seeking resources within shelters. She’s also seeing more people opt to stay outdoors rather than risk exposure to the virus inside a shelter. Denver’s controversial camping ban, which makes it illegal to sleep in public spaces, still remains in place, she says.
“It’s my understanding that they have not agreed to suspend enforcement, but that they are kind of privately saying that they are not going to be moving people along there, but they will be working on cleanup,” Alderman said.
She said that community members residing in encampments have less access to critical resources such as health care, bathroom facilities and hand-washing stations. Alderman said if an individual experiencing homlessness has symptoms, or has come in contact with someone who is displaying symptoms, they should call their health care provider or the Stout Street Health Center in Denver to be tested.
Tracking cases within the homeless population likely will be difficult, Alderman said. Once someone goes to the hospital to get a coronavirus test, the test results then get lumped into the total numbers that are being reported by county health departments.
“I don’t know how they characterize it or if they’re going to release demographic information for those tests,” Alderman said.