Dr. Brian Klausner holds a special passion for providing medical care to homeless patients.
"The homeless community is just particularly vulnerable," said Klausner, medical director of WakeMed Community Population Health. "There is a lot of reason for concern."
As the coronavirus spreads throughout North Carolina, health experts like Klausner almost universally worry about how quickly COVID-19 could spread in homeless populations. Not only are those who suffer homelessness more susceptible to illness, but they also lack homes in which to shelter. If one person contracts the virus and then stays in a shelter, that person could easily spread the virus to others in that shelter.
To protect vulnerable populations, Klausner is working with the WakeMed Foundation, and with support from Biogen, to expand telehealth provider visits to safety-net organizations. Shelters will receive at least 1,200 donated telehealth visits to support their work and help the homeless patient population. Providers can evaluate COVID-19 risks, assess symptoms and provide support by video while connecting vulnerable populations with the appropriate level of care needed to keep them healthy.
Klausner said he and others have also started educating homeless populations about COVID-19 since late February. He said that early education was important, particularly given that homeless populations also struggle to get reliable news.
At a press briefing last week, Governor Roy Cooper said his administration is working to make sure that some of the aid money coming from the federal government will be funneled to local governments to use for finding shelter for the homeless.
"The money states that it has to be used for a COVID-19 purpose," Cooper said. "You have the threat of significant infection in [the homeless] population. We want to make sure that they are protected. We're now in talks with the Department of Treasury that's going to be making some decisions regarding what states and local governments can use this federal money for."
Housing advocates, with organizations including Legal Aid of NC and Progress NC, say the governor should issue an executive order mandating that every North Carolinian has access to safe and stable housing during the pandemic. The advocates suggest the governor "should perform an inventory of all land and property in the state that could potentially be used to create emergency safe housing for the duration of the pandemic." The activists say that includes looking at housing the homeless inside hotels, or converting larger areas, such as convention centers, into makeshift homeless centers.
Efforts To Shelter Homeless Underway In Some Parts Of NC
Across North Carolina, some counties and cities have started working on their efforts to shelter or provide for the homeless. In Greensboro, the city has opened up an additional homeless shelter inside the Greensboro Sportsplex. The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners recently approved $105,000 for the county to use to find housing for the homeless.
"Right now, it really is just getting a hotel, motel, or getting another to commit to housing this category of individuals," said Assistant County Manager Shontell Robinson, in an interview with WFDD. "That has been our biggest challenge at the moment. But we are optimistic and we are continuing to work on that."
Michelle Kennedy with the Interactive Resource Center added that some employed by essential employers have been moved in to hotels. "We don't want them to lose their jobs and at the same time, we need to protect the health of the shelter by limiting community contact," Kennedy said.
In addition, more than 50 people have been given tents and supplies as the shelter is at capacity.
Mecklenburg County has placed at least 60 homeless people with suspected or confirmed cases of the coronavirus inside a hotel. The county's health director says they have either tested positive, are displaying symptoms, awaiting results, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
Other organizations also sprang into action. The Salvation Army of Wake County moved 30 families with young children out of the Barbara L. Goodmon Women's and Children Shelter, where more than 100 women and children regularly find safe respite, into hotel rooms where they can practice safe social distancing.
The Women's Center of Wake County has given sewing machines to some of its housing residents and they are making masks for all of the unsheltered women, and staff are preparing the garden for summer harvest.
"Our thought is that there may be increased numbers in homelessness among women when this virus is over," said WCWC Development Director Nora Robbins. "Right now we are seeing an increase in women that were working in retail and restaurants calling or dropping in looking for financial assistance for rent, utilities and food… We intend to continue to help meet these needs in our community, as we come out of this crisis."
There have also been reports of increased violence. InterAct of Wake County reported seeing a full 50% increase of sexual assault patients at its Solace Center in March.
For Klausner of WakeMed, the most successful outcome is to not see the coronavirus in these populations in the first place. Because if it does, it could spread quickly.
"Inside that population, there's going to be a lot less social distancing than in a normal population," he said. "So once it hits the [homeless] population it's probably getting spread a lot quicker than the housed populations where we're all sitting in social isolation."