By Skyler Stark-Ragsdale & Emily Kressley | Photo by Patil Khakhamian

While the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped almost everything dead in its tracks, homelessness in Colorado Springs continues. When Gov. Jared Polis’ Stay-at-Home Order was put in place on March 26, 2020, most people took to their homes. But how are those without homes supposed to comply with these guidelines while protecting themselves — especially considering they are an already extremely vulnerable population, even without a pandemic ravaging the country?

As reported by the Colorado Springs Independent, in mid-March, the Salvation Army shelter and services at RJ Montgomery announced that they would continue to operate their shelter and food pantry through the crisis. The shelter has increased cleaning, but faces difficulty in maintaining a supply of non-perishables and hand sanitizer.

Like the Pikes Peak Library District locations, the daytime resource center had to be closed to reduce the spread of the virus. This left those experiencing homelessness without laundry services, showers, a place to sit to shelter from the weather, or assistance in securing food, employment, and other help.

Yet there were still empty beds in the Springs Rescue Mission Shelter. Many of those experiencing homelessness are older or have chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease; both of these factors further heighten the risk that the virus already poses to them.

While the shelters are doing their best to wash and sanitize everything and monitor health conditions, people are afraid of getting sick at the very place aiming to help them. This lack of individual security is not new to the pandemic, but the consequences are amplified despite shelters’ best efforts.

There is some sentiment within this population that they have experienced worse traumas, and  perhaps they have. The issue remains that they are at an immediate disadvantage in protecting themselves: social distancing becomes almost impossible when sleeping inside or banding together to support one another.

As reported by KKTV, a new isolation shelter was finished Sunday, April 5. The staff does daily rounds to check on symptoms, as the shelter serves as an area to isolate those with symptoms who do not need hospitalization in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Jennifer Mariano, the Director of Homeless Programs at the Community Health Partnership, said the City Auditorium was transformed into a shelter for people experiencing homelessness who were showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We’ve seen 41 different people come through there,” she said. “As of yesterday, we still had six individuals that were staying there.”

Mariano said they received funding from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to get the isolation shelter up and running. She said, while the shelter is “not a medical shelter,” they do have a Cooperative Nursing Assistant (CNA) and a Licensed Practical Nurse to monitor the individuals.

Though finding a sufficient place for an isolation shelter proved to be challenging, with 14 different partners, the project collaboration was “incredible to watch,” she said.

Mariano said the partners included the Springs Rescue Mission, Zactly Employment Solutions, the Community Health Partnership (CHP), the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, various laundry services, Peak Vista Health Center, the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD), Envida (a medical transport company), and Catholic Charities, among others.

As a result, she said the isolation shelter is provided with light medical care, Chromebooks, books, DVDs, a mobile shower, health check-ins, testing, medical transport, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

One of the key components to the success of this collaborative project was the algorithm established by the Colorado University (CU) School of Medicine, which provided a series of questions to determine if an individual was a good candidate to stay at the shelter, be released, or go to the hospital, according to Mariano.

Dr. Heather Cassidy, Director of Community Engagement for the Colorado Springs Branch of the CU School of Medicine, collaborated with CU medical students to create the algorithm.

Cassidy said they were also in conversation with representatives from CU Health’s emergency room, the Fire Department, the EMS program, the Department of Public Health, and the shelters themselves.

The algorithm, she said, was developed to screen people who may be sick. If they are sick, it is designed to identify if they should go to the hospital or if they can “ride out” the infection.

The algorithm functions in two main ways, Cassidy said. First, it screens people for a potential “red flag symptom.”

“Are they confused, are they working so hard to breathe right now that they are having trouble getting out a sentence, are they struggling to stand up because they’re really weak. If the answer was yes, just call 9-1-1,” she said.

If the answer is not yes, Cassidy said she and her collaborators set up a medical triage line that shelters could call to “bounce” those questions off of a medical expert.

The population of people experiencing homelessness, she said, is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This is for two reasons: one, they often live in close proximity to each other, in a “congregate setting,” which increases the transmission rate from person to person; and two, many of them have preexisting, chronic medical conditions that puts them at a higher risk to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms, she said.

Cassidy added that testing is also an important part of the equation and an important factor to consider when making decisions.

“Originally, we had no ability to do testing for COVID,” she said. “Now, anybody who is staying at the isolation center has access to get a test done, and that helps us kind of know if they should stay there or if they should be released into the normal community shelter system.”

However, she maintains that they still have a long way to go before they can adequately handle the novel virus.

“What we’re learning nationally and internationally, is that the time that people are the most infectious … is while they are asymptomatic, and they can be asymptomatic for a few days before they reveal symptoms,” she said. “So unless you have a screening program that actually tests for the disease and picks up people in the asymptomatic phase, you’re bound to miss some people.”

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