An increasing number of homeless people in Skid Row shelters are positive for the coronavirus, the NBC4 I-Team has learned.
A week ago, only four people at the Union Rescue Mission tested positive. As of Wednesday, there are 57 confirmed cases in that one shelter, including a county health care worker assigned to the site.
The Los Angeles Fire Department is hoping to test a large swath of Skid Row’s homeless, setting up a pop up testing site in the area manned by workers in full hazmat suits, standing behind plastic shields.
But most of the homeless are staying away. An hour after the testing site opened today, News Chopper4 spotted only eight people waiting to get tested Wednesday morning, out of an estimated 5,000 homeless living in the area.
A veteran nurse who works at the city’s temporary shelters says the homeless are fearful of workers in hazmat suits and she understands why they’d stay away.
“They need to see your face, to know that you’re not there to hurt them,” said Nurse Kelly, who asked us not to use her last name. “The homeless population has vocalized to me that they do feel scared about all this and they don’t want to be approached with full hazmat.”
Kelly says most nurses who work with the homeless wear masks, gloves and sometimes eye protection, but not hazmat gear.
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The nurse worked with the county health department three years ago, as part of an effort to get the homeless population immunized against Hepatitis A during an outbreak. She says they offered $5 Subway gift cards in exchange for immunization, a tactic that she said worked then and could work again.
“I think we need to think very realistically and in very simple terms, what the needs are,” she said, suggesting that bags including bottled water, hand sanitizer and a restaurant gift card would give many homeless the incentive to take a COVID-19 test.
Public health officials have said that widespread testing among the homeless could possibly prevent a massive spread of the virus on Skid Row.
Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the head of the county health department, admitted Wednesday that county officials need to do a better job communicating the importance of getting tested to the homeless community but stopped short of saying incentives would be used.
“It’s less about offering incentives than it is about making (testing) easier for people,” she said.
The county now wants to test people at seven other homeless shelters due to the outbreak at the Union Rescue Mission. And yet some homeless still don’t believe that the coronavirus is a real threat, a homeless man who had been tested told the I-Team.
“If you say, ‘Why don’t you wear a mask?' They say, ‘It’s all fake. It’s all baloney,’” he said.
For three days, the I-Team has asked Mayor Eric Garcetti questions--via email--about the city's lackluster testing effort among the homeless. The mayor had not responded as of Wednesday evening.