Homeless are vulnerable to effects of coronavirus

64 percent of homeless are reported to be living with at least one health condition

PORT ORCHARD — With the crosshairs of COVID-19 — the novel coronavirus — pointed at the Puget Sound area, in particular, the state of Washington has taken steps to speed its response in containing the virulent virus.

As of mid-week, seven deaths were reported in the state, the only fatalities known to date in the U.S. Eighteen confirmed cases are being treated in King and Snohomish counties. While most of the coronavirus victims were either elderly and/or battling underlying health conditions, experts are unsure just what path this near-pandemic disease will follow.

Last Monday, more than a dozen schools in eight school districts in the state reported temporary closures.

Should the disease spread, it’s likely to impact the homeless population around the Puget Sound area, including Kitsap County. While the virus presents a mild risk for most healthy people, older, less healthy residents — especially those without suitable shelter — stand a greater chance of suffering significant risks if exposed to the disease.

A story in crosscut.com, a Seattle-based issues and opinion website, contends that this area’s homeless population is vulnerable for a number of reasons.

Sixty four percent of people who have spent years outside, received spotty health care and engaged in substance abuse are reported to be living with one or more health conditions. Another 27 percent reported in a survey of 1,000 people dealing with homelessness last year that their health issues were “chronic.”

While the homeless population’s average age is lower than that in senior care facilities, Dr. Margot Kushel, MD, director of the University of California San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations, said both demographic groups share one vulnerability.

“Physiologically, they probably have more in common” with an older population, she said, including those battling cardiopulmonary diseases.

The article stated that the coronavirus is believed to have an overall mortality rate below 2 percent, but for people with heart conditions, it can be as high as 10 percent. For patients over 70, it’s around 8 percent.

Efforts to isolate the disease is significantly more difficult for the homeless, especially those who stay in shelters, which are already near capacity and don’t have the ability to self-quarantine.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said at a news conference that the county plans to open a number of self-contained housing units, specifically for the homeless population, in a motel it plans to purchase.

“Many of us can shelter in place, we can go home, we can even work remotely,” Constantine said. “That is not an option for people who are unhoused.”

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