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Worcester Leaders Say Coronavirus Measures Allow City To 'Do Wonders' For Homeless Community

City officials in Worcester say thorough testing for the coronavirus in the homeless community has allowed them to control the spread of the virus and get people help for other conditions as well.

The most recent round of testing found just four out of the 59 people (7%) staying at the city's emergency adult shelter had the coronavirus, city leaders say.

In an earlier, more expansive round in mid-April that tested 114 people, 43% came up positive. The week before that, 22% of the adult homeless population tested was found to have the coronavirus.

Over the last few weeks, people experiencing homelessness who tested positive were isolated in a shelter section of the field hospital at the DCU Center in Worcester. This week, that isolation shelter portion was closed and the remaining ten people staying there were moved to a coronavirus isolation facility in Northampton.

"If you bring in those services and treatment and attention to this population, you can do wonders with them. You empower the people who are homeless."

Dr. Mattie Castiel

Temporary shelters for those who tested negative continue to operate at a church, a high school and a center near the main shelter on Queen Street. Those facilities are allowing the homeless population to be less concentrated, with 20 people staying in one, 26 in another and 16 in the third. There are 52 people staying at the main permanent shelter.

Worcester's health and human services commissioner, Dr. Mattie Castiel, says separating the people who tested positive from the rest of the shelter population and then spreading out the remaining population has proven beneficial. Medical care has been brought into the temporary shelter facilities in a way she's never before seen in Worcester, she says.

“If there was anything positive about the pandemic, [it] was the ability to have [people who are homeless] be able to be treated, to have the [University of Massachusetts Medical School] come in and do telehealth and bring recovery coaches," she says. "We've brought in people who have been working with [homeless adults] to get them jobs."

She adds that the city and its partners are also working to move people out of the shelters and into housing during the pandemic. Five people have gone into residential drug treatment programs.

"If you bring in those services and treatment and attention to this population, you can do wonders with them," Castiel says. "You empower the people who are homeless."

Testing efforts going forward will focus on any new people arriving at the main shelter on Queen Street operated by South Middlesex Opportunity Council, Castiel says.

In Worcester, as in Boston and other cities, the majority of people who are homeless and test positive for the coronavirus don't have any symptoms or have minimal symptoms. So screening people for symptoms, like fever or cough, has proven to be a weak tool to try to find people who are infected.

"You're trying to stop the spread of people who are asymptomatic, walking in the streets, so that they will ultimately recover and not expose other people to the virus,"Castiel says. "So I think this effort of the shelters, the testing, the separation of the [people who tested negative] and isolation of the [people who tested positive] and bringing in all the resources to assist them have been a positive piece for our homeless community."

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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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