The state is still working on a plan to deal with unsheltered homeless individuals who start to exhibit symptoms of the coronavirus and only Friday gave guidelines to service providers to prevent the spread of the virus throughout Connecticut’s emergency shelter system.
Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Richard Cho said plans are still in works on how to deal with symptomatic homeless individuals who are living outside. “They will likely end up in the emergency department,” Cho said.
Health care providers and hospitals throughout the state have been working for weeks to avoid that very circumstance — where individuals infected with the virus show up unannounced at emergency departments.
The novel coronavirus 2019, now called COVID-19, has sickened more than 125,000 worldwide, causing more than 4,000 deaths particularly among the elderly and those with prior medical conditions. State officials announced 11 confirmed cases of the virus in Connecticut Friday, mostly in Fairfield County. Concerns over the rapid spread of the virus which causes fever, cough and difficulty breathing, prompted Gov. Ned Lamont to declare a state of emergency Tuesday and President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency Friday.
The state Department of Housing is sensitive to the need to keep people out of emergency departments, said Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno. “I have members with cancer,” she said. “I know they are weak and families can’t be exposed. This is a very important thing personally for me.”
Mosquera-Bruno is also aware that unsheltered homeless individuals are a vulnerable population who will need a stable place to stay if they do become ill with the virus.
“We are working with our partners to find places where they can stay if they get sick,” she said. “We are also working on keeping temporary shelters open so people won’t be put out on the streets.”
Throughout the winter some temporary shelters manned by volunteers open around the state to help provide an overnight place to stay in the cold. Most close about this time of year. But Mosquera-Bruno is looking at ways to keep them open as part of the agency’s push to deal with the virus.
Cho said on Sunday, his agency, which is the umbrella organization for shelter and homeless services providers throughout the state, posted materials from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on dealing with the virus on its website.
Connecticut officials waited to post any information until they had gathered a collaborative response from stakeholders, said DOH Director of Individual and Family Support Programs Steve DiLella.
Their efforts thus far have been focused on preventing the spread of the virus in communal living arrangements such as emergency shelters, DiLella said.
“We wanted to hear everyone’s concerns and wanted the response to be well-thought-out and agreed upon,” DiLella said. “We didn’t want to create panic and more hysteria.”
Jane Banks is a seasoned service provider who dealt with a tornado in Massachusetts and an influx of homeless victims of Hurricane Maria in her previous job. As the executive director of South Park Inn shelter in Hartford, she has been preparing for the coronavirus for weeks.
“We’re doing okay at this point,” Banks said. She and her staff have identified a space where shelter clients can be isolated or quarantined if they show symptoms or have been exposed to someone who is showing symptoms.
She has enough food and cleaning supplies and has discussed individually with each shelter client the importance of handwashing and maintaining a safe space so as not to spread the disease. “This is a team effort between staff and residents to keep things clean and sanitized,” she said. “We need to be in this together.”
Her staff also has a plan for dealing with those who may be resistant to medical treatment or isolation.
“For folks who have a lot of challenges, we’ll work with them individually,” she said. “They might be resistant to help but we will work with them to keep everybody safe and keep themselves safe.”
Banks also conceded that there is no definite plan for how to handle those who are living on streets who may become symptomatic. “They must come into the shelter from 2-1-1,” she said.
While CCEH began posting federal information Sunday, the state Department of Housing just posted its guidelines Friday, which include asking shelters if they had enough food and cleaning supplies and telling providers to change their layouts so that beds can be spaced 6 feet apart – if possible.
The DOH memo advised shelters to “begin planning for staffing contingencies and hiring temporary staff” and consider how to feed people if staff can’t prepare and serve meals.
Cho said there are shelters that won’t be able to effectively isolate those who are symptomatic – those people will likely be given masks. Those on the streets may be reached through outreach, but he was hoping that individuals living in tents would be isolated on their own.
“We don’t have a protocol for screening and isolating those who aren’t in shelters,” he said. The state had over 2,300 individuals in 1,900 households in shelters on Wednesday night, Cho said. His agency estimated that about 300 people are living on the streets in Connecticut – a number that usually swells in the warmer weather.
The concern has been more with preventing the virus from overwhelming the shelters, drop-in centers and soup kitchens where people — including those who are living on the streets — congregate.
Most soup kitchens in the state will be offering “grab and go” meals in the coming weeks rather than congregate meals which provide for socialization and a connection to services. Churches in New Britain who regularly offer morning “mingle” breakfasts and dinners, such as the weekly pasta supper at First Lutheran Church, will be handing out bagged food as of Monday.
The change represented a trade off – the ability to help people find services versus keeping more people safe from the virus, Cho said.
The 2-1-1 call center operated by United Way, which directs people to shelter and resources to find lodging, will be encouraging people to stay with family or friends if possible to lower the number of people who are housed in shelters to help stop the spread of the virus, Cho said.
The DOH is instructing providers to seek funding for people who may need assistance with security deposits or to remain in their apartments, which is a safer option than a crowded shelter, the memo said. “Shelters are to be used as an absolute last resort and if the person has anywhere else to stay, even temporarily, it is safer for the person to do that,” the memo said.
“First and foremost we are encouraging all shelters to connect with their local public health department to develop plans,” Cho said. “Shelters should stay open as much as possible and we’re asking shelters to shift staffing patterns to stay open during the day and step up cleaning.”