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Utah’s homeless are facing slightly higher COVID rates and lower vaccination, advocate says

A $285,000 donation will help pay for continued quarantine and isolation facility while omicron surges.

(Courtesy Fourth Street Clinic) A Fourth Street Clinic staffer vaccinates a woman in this undated photo.

The rate of positive COVID-19 tests in the Salt Lake Valley’s homeless community is slightly higher than the general population, an advocate warns, noting that fewer unsheltered individuals have been vaccinated.

Janida Emerson, CEO of the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care to Salt Lake City’s homeless population, said her team has been seeing about 35% of COVID tests come back positive from the clients they serve. On Thursday, by comparison, the state’s positivity rate was 23.1%, according to the Utah Department of Health, although it ticked up to 28.6% on Friday.

Emerson said that the Fourth Street Clinic has observed a “spike” in COVID-19 in the homeless community recently, just as cases have been rising among other populations in Utah, too.

However, vaccination rates among unsheltered individuals are generally lower than the rest of the public, Emerson said. On Friday, the health department announced that 59.1% of Utahns have been vaccinated so far.

Among individuals staying in Salt Lake City’s homeless resource centers, as well as families staying in the Midvale Family Resource Center, 37% of people on average have been vaccinated, according to Emerson.

Vaccination rates typically vary from shelter to shelter, she said. The percentage is usually higher than 37% at the Gail Miller Resource Center (which houses men and women) and the South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center, and lower at the Midvale family shelter, since children age 4 and younger aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Fourth Street Clinic provides vaccinations on-site at 409 W. 400 South, as well as at encampments and the homeless resource centers. The clinic also provides masks and other protective equipment to the shelters and sends mobile teams to check on unsheltered people who are more dispersed.

As for why fewer homeless people are vaccinated than the general public, Emerson said one reason is that unsheltered individuals can be more vaccine-hesitant than people who are housed.

“Various different concerns [regarding vaccinations] in the general population, those exist within the homeless population as well,” Emerson said. “And then you layer onto that mental illness and a lot of trauma, and it just becomes a little bit more challenging to want to get vaccinated.”

She said many homeless people have been traumatized by their interactions with the health care system itself.

Testing and quarantine for the unsheltered

A COVID-19 test is offered but isn’t required upon entry to the shelters operated by The Road Home, said director of development Kat Kahn. That includes the men’s resource center in South Salt Lake, the Midvale family shelter, the Gail Miller Resource Center and the St. Vincent de Paul winter overflow shelter.

Testing also isn’t required upon entry at the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, which is operated by Volunteers of America, said president and CEO Kathy Bray. Women leave and return to the 200-bed facility every day, Bray said, so the organization doesn’t have the capacity to test everyone as they arrive.

However, weekly testing events are held at the women’s shelter in partnership with the health department, Bray said, and staffers administer rapid tests to anyone who reports symptoms. Staffers also test everyone that a sick person was in contact with, she said.

“Over the past two years, the positivity rate has been low enough that we’ve been able to transport infected clients to a separate quarantine and isolation facility, preventing major outbreaks,” Bray said.

Salt Lake County managed the quarantine and isolation program for the unsheltered from the time the pandemic hit in March 2020 until June 2021. At first, that meant using county facilities like recreation centers, then later transitioning to traditional hotels.

Fourth Street Clinic took over in July, providing a safe space where homeless people infected with COVID-19 could get out of congregant settings or off the street and stay quarantined. The clinic provides regular medical check-ins to monitor individuals’ COVID symptoms, and it has coordinated with homeless resource providers and local businesses to provide meals and transportation to the facility.

But the 30-room rented space in Salt Lake City is now at capacity, and the clinic has had to start turning sick people away, Emerson said. Plus, the monthly cost for isolation services is $130,000. The clinic’s funding, Emerson added, dried up at the end of 2021.

Need for more funds

In October, the Salt Lake County Health Department donated $100,000 to help Fourth Street continue operating the quarantine facility, recognizing that “the need for the resource still exists,” according to a department spokesperson.

In November, Fourth Street Clinic spokesperson James Jarrard told the Tribune, “It’s really tricky to figure out how to make this a sustainable program.”

But a new source of funding came last week.

The Intermountain Community Care Foundation donated $285,000 to Fourth Street Clinic so it could continue providing quarantine and isolation services while the omicron variant is surging in Utah. According to a news release, the money will go toward rent for the facility, as well as meals, security, medical supplies and other operating costs.

Mikelle Moore, president of the Intermountain Community Care Foundation and senior vice president and chief community officer of Intermountain Healthcare, said in the release that Fourth Street Clinic’s services are vital.

“We stand with the community health center in our conviction to helping our communities that are struggling through the COVID pandemic,” Moore said.

To date, the program has served 561 homeless individuals and families, according to the release.

Fourth Street Clinic intends to pursue state funding for operations in February and March, the release said. But in the meantime, Emerson said the donation came in the eleventh hour.

“The reality for us here at Fourth Street Clinic is that COVID is moving far faster than we have the resources for,” Emerson said in the release. “... We began to worry how this program would continue with such a massive spike in cases.”

WHERE TO GET FREE MASKS

If you are low-income or homeless and need free KN95 respirators, Salt Lake County offers them for free at all library branches and senior centers.

To find a library location near you, visit SLCOlibrary.org. To find a senior center near you, go to SLCO.org, click on “Departments,” then click on “Aging and Adult Services.” Free KN95 respirators are also available at all homeless resource centers.


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