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First NYC homeless shelter resident tests positive for coronavirus

A sign directs people to the entrance of a Department of Homeless Services-run shelter. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

By Greg B. Smith

This story was originally published on March 17, 2020 by THE CITY.

A resident of a city homeless shelter tested positive for coronavirus — a first-of-its-kind case that sent the woman’s dorm roommates into quarantine, officials said Tuesday.

Department of Homeless Services (DHS) officials said they are aware of about 24 homeless shelter residents who have either sought care or have been connected to hospitals “for COVID-like or COVID-related symptoms” since the first New Yorker tested positive March 1.

“Not every individual who experiences symptoms is or must be tested. Not every individual who experiences symptoms has this virus,” noted Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson.

Meanwhile, city outreach workers who hit the streets nightly trying to convince homeless people to seek shelter have also encountered individuals who reported potential COVID-19 symptoms.

To date, six people living on the streets have been transported to city hospitals and all have tested negative, according to DHS.

Shelter Remains Open

The woman who tested positive was living in a single adult shelter and is now hospitalized, in isolation. The dorm room and the entire shelter have been “comprehensively cleaned.” The unidentified facility remains open.

Staff and other residents there are being monitored, though none have been tested.

The resident’s eight dorm-mates have all been transferred to what McGinn called a “separate quarantine location that DHS established as part of its planning for this unprecedented crisis.”

They’ll remain in quarantine for two weeks. If they show symptoms of COVID-19, city Health & Hospital Corporation doctors will determine whether they require testing.

Changes Eyed

The revelation that COVID-19 is now inside a city-run shelter came in response to a series of questions THE CITY sent Tuesday morning to DHS officials, asking how they’re handling the outbreak.

Health officials have long expected that the homeless shelter population could become exposed to coronavirus. Now that it’s happened, they are grappling with how to contain the spread within a population that can’t self-quarantine — except in packed shelters or on the sidewalks and subways.

The ability to enforce “social distancing” is difficult in city shelters, particularly in the 100 or so facilities that currently house single adults. Residents usually stay in dorm rooms of eight to 12 beds, and sometimes up to 20.

McGinn said the agency is “evaluating how to modify our approach to services and programs to increase social distancing and limit gatherings.”

That includes changing certain protocols — including requiring all single adult shelter residents to leave all rooms every day, instead of just when rooms are being cleaned. Officials are also “exploring extending and/or staggering meal times,” McGinn said.

DHS has worked with city hospital officials to train shelter workers to screen residents for possible symptoms. Residents who say they’re experiencing symptoms are isolated in a designated room and given a face mask. Shelter operators are instructed to seek medical care for these residents “immediately.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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