Homeless individuals are now being tested for the COVID-19 virus by Harris Health System through its Health Care for the Homeless Program thanks to nearly $1.3 million in federal grants awarded to Harris Health. In all, the program has already tested 125 people with the aim of testing and caring for up to 1,000 homeless individuals.
The testing program addresses a largely underserved population (estimated at 3,900 people in Houston by the Coalition for the Homeless) to prevent any widespread infection of the virus among this vulnerable population.
“It’s important that we focus our efforts on testing the homeless during this pandemic because this population is particularly susceptible to contracting the virus,” says Tracey Burdine, director, Health Care for the Homeless, Harris Health. “A large percentage of the homeless suffers from multiple chronic medical conditions, exposure to the elements and minimal access to facilities for hygiene maintenance, which increases the risk of mortality.”
Testing has occurred at homeless shelters—Lord of the Streets and Open Door Mission—and will include all nine Harris Health homeless shelter clinics located across Harris County, says Nelson Gonzalez, grants project manager, Health Care for the Homeless Program, Harris Health.
“Our plan is to test at all the locations where Harris Health serves the homeless population,” he adds. “However, we have agreed to assist the City of Houston and test locations which they have identified as potential hot spots.”
For this reason, Harris Health is taking testing to homeless encampments and large homeless gatherings like the one under Interstate 69 in downtown Houston across from Star of Hope Men’s Development Center and Minute Maid Park.
“COVID-19 has the potential to spread at an alarming rate within this community due to living in communal spaces,” Burdine warns.
Persons suspected of being infected with the virus or who test positive are directed to quarantine through the Houston/Harris County Joint Homeless Medical Isolation Recovery Center. There they are provided temporary housing, food and healthcare services to wait out their quarantine (usually 10-14 days).
The federal grants awarded to Harris Health come from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to provide homeless individuals with physical exams, treatments and medications, as well as psychiatric care to help them cope with their diagnosis and quarantine.
The HRSA grants awarded are:
• Health Center Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Funding
• Expanding Capacity for Coronavirus Testing
• Coronavirus Supplemental Funding for Health Centers