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Regional Officials Use Lessons From Hepatitis A Outbreak To Respond To Coronavirus Pandemic

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Speaker 1: 00:00 During San Diego's 2017 hepatitis a outbreak, 20 people died. More than half of them homeless regional officials were criticized for a slow and disorganized response. Now that San Diego is faced with the Corona virus, pandemic officials are pulling from previous experience to slow the spread of novel coronavirus and provide resources to one of the most vulnerable populations. The homeless Lisa Halverstadt, reporter with voice of San Diego joins us via Skype with more. Lisa, welcome.

Speaker 2: 00:31 Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: 00:33 You know, there were lots of lessons to be learned from the hepatitis a outbreak. What do you think are, are some of the biggest changes since then that we're seeing being implemented today to address the coronavirus pandemic?

Speaker 2: 00:45 Well, what I saw this time that was different from last time I think was just the immediate sense of urgency around the homeless population. And a couple of days ago I talked to public health officer, Wilma Wootton and I was asking her about this and she just noted that, you know, even though they recognize this is a global pandemic, it affects, you know, people off, obviously all over the world. And the initial guidance that they were being given, um, were, you know, around people traveling or who might've had contact with people with coronavirus that mainly you wouldn't necessarily think the homeless population, um, would be most at risk that they realized because of that experience with the hepatitis a outbreak that if this Corona virus were to spread to individuals and the homeless population, they are especially vulnerable and the, the pandemic could just spread so dramatically there. So what I've just been hearing great from the start is a lot more focus both of city and County leaders on focusing on what can be done to protect the homeless population from this horrible outbreak.

Speaker 1: 01:47 You know, as you point out in your article, there are areas where regional officials are falling short in providing resources to the homeless. As the coronavirus pandemic emerges here, what are some of those areas?

Speaker 2: 01:59 So I would just say that there's a sense of confusion and panic out there among the unsheltered population. And then there's also some people that are just completely unaware of what's going on. Um, the city and the County are just really working hard to ramp things up to, to work on their response. But homeless San Diegans and, and providers who work with them tell me that there's been sometimes a lack of clarity around protocols or when certain resources might be available. Um, I mean, I think the important thing to emphasize here is obviously that if you do not have a home, it is very difficult to quarantine yourself or fall out of these social distancing type protocols. And shelters and other home homeless services are trying to adjust certainly. But there's also been confusion among the homeless population of if there's somebody who's concerned that they're at risk, what do they do? What is an unsheltered person to do if he or she thinks that they have symptoms? Who did they go to if they don't have a healthcare provider? Um, you know, certainly the County has said they're really trying to ramp up these outreach teams, um, that will go out to homeless camps. But you know, there's a question, some have asked, well, what if, what if no one comes to me or how do I proactively get resources or you know, potentially access health care, um, or you know, maybe an opportunity to get off the street.

Speaker 1: 03:23 Mm, yeah. You know, so far we've seen the Corona virus touch almost every sphere of society, from Congress to the sports world and Hollywood. How vulnerable is the homeless population in particular to outbreaks including this pandemic?

Speaker 2: 03:38 Extremely vulnerable. So I often like to bring up this, um, UC San Francisco study that was published back in 2016. Um, they studied, uh, some homeless seniors in Oakland over a period of time and these were people actually in their late fifties, so they weren't, you know, in their older senior years. And you are facing health issues that were often similar to people in their seventies or eighties. Just think about that for a minute. That just speaks to, I mean, literally the, the, um, expert who really led that research said basically in the homeless population, 50 is the new 75. So we're talking about a population that you know, is often experiencing health issues beyond their years. You also have an aging population and you have a population that's, you know, often again living on the street. And so there can be mental health issues that rise up as a result of that or other health issues, um, that can rise up as a result of the stresses of living on the street. And then on top of that, you also have the issue of the fact that homeless people often lack this easy access to all of us who are housed have to being able to wash our hands, shower every day. Um, these are things that homeless people don't necessarily have easy access to and the lack of good sanitation really can fuel an outbreak. And that's what we saw with the hepatitis a outbreak.

Speaker 1: 05:04 You know, yesterday we heard some homeless shelters are not taking in new people amid this Corona virus outbreak. And there is a lot of concern about what would happen if Corona virus starts spreading among San Diego's homeless. Do you think local public health officials would be ready to respond? If that did happen?

Speaker 2: 05:22 Well, certainly, um, they're trying, they'd say that they're trying to make every effort to try to protect this population. Um, they, uh, have, uh, been trying to deploy more outreach to try to get the word out about this outbreak, to prevent the worst from happening. Um, they've also been trying to, uh, you know, deploy nurses in homeless shelters, which are particularly risky spaces because of all the close contact, um, to be screening individuals. So I think right now the focus is on, you know, trying to prevent the worst. Um, and, and really, you know, they're hoping for the best.

Speaker 1: 06:00 I've been speaking with Lisa Halverstadt via Skype. She's a reporter with voice of San Diego. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for having me.

Officials say the homeless population is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak so they are working to provide resources to prevent wide spread among the population.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.