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Boston's Homeless Population Experiencing 'Significant Surge' In Coronavirus Cases

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program set up tents to quarantine and isolate people who may have COVID-19. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)
Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program set up tents to quarantine and isolate people who may have COVID-19. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Boston's homeless population is seeing a major increase in coronavirus cases, according to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

"It's hitting severely right now," says Dr. Jessie Gaeta, the program's chief medical officer. "We're in about ... day three of a significant surge that is more dramatic than we anticipated."

About 200 people who are homeless in the city have tested positive for the coronavirus, Gaeta says. That's out of 600 to 700 people tested.

"We've got many new cases per day now ... and we're working desperately to take those folks out of congregate settings into places where they can be isolated," Gaeta explains.

Two medical tents that the city, Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program are operating for quarantine and isolation, next to the Southampton Street Shelter, are full. The city also opened the old Kindred Hospital on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton, with 70 beds for quarantining and isolating people who are homeless. Gaeta says those beds are nearly full, too.

"The need is outpacing our ability to place people in those facilities," she says. "We're working really hard right now to scale up much bigger isolation facilities."

The state and city are working to re-open the previously shuttered, state-owned Newton Pavilion on the Boston Medical Campus, with 250 beds for people who are homeless and need isolation or quarantine due to the coronavirus. They're also opening a field hospital at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport. Half of the hospital's 1,000 beds will be for people who are homeless and need isolation, but not full hospital care.

"Those things are evolving rapidly," Gaeta says. "We are going to need those beds now."

Most of the people who are homeless and have tested positive do not have symptoms but can still shed the virus, according to Gaeta. She says there have been no known deaths from COVID-19 among people who are homeless in Boston, but some of the patients are hospitalized in intensive care and on ventilators.

Due to the increase in coronavirus cases, Pine Street Inn, which is Boston's largest homeless service provider, decided over the weekend that it cannot accept any new shelter guests.

President and Executive Director Lyndia Downie says now that all current guests have been tested, the shelter will await the final results and make sure it has moved all who have tested positive into isolation facilities. Then the shelter will be able to screen new guests and have them stay in a particular area — possibly dorm space at Suffolk University that's being used to help spread out the shelter population — until they are determined to be free of the coronavirus.

"But for right now, we are telling new folks that we're happy to help you over the phone," says Downie. "We're happy to offer transportation ... you know, can you go back and stay with someone? Could we help cover a portion of the rent? But for now, we're trying to both de-congregate [the shelter] and then figure out how to let people in who haven't yet been tested in a way that's safe."

This article was originally published on April 06, 2020.

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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