Homeless shelters are taking extra precautions to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Pine Street Inn in Boston has hired an outside company to do deep sanitation — ramping up to have it done daily in addition to the normal shelter cleaning, according to Pine Street's president and executive director, Lyndia Downie. The organization has also installed portable hand-washing stations at its four shelters.
Downie said the shelters are trying to keep up or add to their normal supply of hand sanitizer, which is now hard to get. And shelter workers are using every possible means to communicate concerns about the virus.
"We have flyers all over the shelters ... at all the front desks. Staff are talking directly to guests, reminding them to wash their hands," Downie said. "We are scheduling [shelter-wide meetings] more frequently, where we can remind people to wash their hands, remind people what the symptoms are, remind them what the protocol is if they have any symptoms."
That protocol is for guests to be seen by medical staff at on-site clinics at the main men's and women's shelters in the South End. Those clinics are run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
The shelter population is at heightened risk for respiratory illness because large numbers of people are living in close quarters, and it's a vulnerable population to begin with.
"We do have a number of people who have serious [underlying] medical conditions that are homeless, both on the street and in shelter," Downie said. "And we know they're at higher risk. We have quite a few people who are elderly, as well ... The combination, I think, of those two things does have us concerned."
Communicating about the coronavirus to shelter guests with severe mental illness is another challenge, Downie said, as some of those clients are not taking psychiatric medication and might have trouble following protocols or reporting when they feel ill.
Testing for the new coronavirus has so far been limited in Massachusetts and elsewhere due to short supplies of testing kits and specific criteria for who can be undergo testing, which are now being broadened. Downie said she hopes people in the shelter population with possible coronavirus symptoms will be able to be quickly checked.
"Anybody who has the risk factors — age, underlying health conditions — I would hope would be prioritized," Downie said. "All we can do is get people to a health care provider and have them then figure out how do we get people tested."
So far no one from Pine Street Inn has been tested or monitored for the virus.
Boston Public Health Commission, which runs the emergency homeless shelter for men at 112 Southampton Street and the Woods Mullen shelter for women, said it's providing hand sanitizer to shelter clients and that the shelters undergo deep cleanings weekly. A commission spokesperson said many of the steps the shelters are taking are standard operating procedures they follow to prevent the spread of any respiratory illness.