For Steve Whitaker, the president of Tulsa’s John 3:16 Mission, the biggest coronavirus-related worry he has about the population he serves is not what happens if someone experiencing homelessness shows symptoms of the virus.
It’s what happens if the city grinds to a halt because of the outbreak.
“We’re talking about a population of people who require services a lot of times to survive,” Whitaker said. “The worst case scenario would be the notion of a quarantine where everyone is told to go home and not come out for two weeks. In that case we would just have a viral problem, we and others who serve the homeless population would be in a major crisis.
The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has resulted in scores of deaths around the world but has only recently begun to spread in the United States. It was officially designated as a pandemic this week by the World Health Organization.
As of Friday morning, the Oklahoma State Department of Health had identified one positive case of the virus and two presumptive positive cases. A case is considered a presumptive positive when a public health laboratory identifies a positive result but is awaiting CDC’s confirmation.
Two cases, which were not connected, were confirmed in Tulsa County residents who recently traveled from Italy, health officials have said. A third case was identified in Jackson County on Thursday afternoon. The Altus Air Force Base in a statement on Thursday said the patient, who is undergoing evaluation and treatment, was an active duty U.S. Air Force airman assigned to the base.
The virus is believed to be most dangerous to the elderly and those who lack access to healthcare and whose immune systems are already compromised. Whitaker said the population of people experiencing homeslessness checks all those boxes.
“At the end of the day, a lot of people are only going to be thinking about themselves,” he said. “We hope they understand that we already have a humanitarian crisis with the number of people we serve, much less what would happen if this virus spread to them.”
Whitaker said there are between 800-900 beds available in Tulsa for a population that could be as high as 1,400 people. If shelters were forced to close because volunteers were told to stay home, the number of people with no access to services would skyrocket.
“How can you tell those people that they’re not being fed or taken care of?” Whitaker said. “We’re thinking of ways we can continue to serve and how we can keep the people we love cared for. We might be doing a soup kitchen outside in rubber gloves. I might be in a hazmat suit. We’re not going to let anybody go uncared for.”
Whitaker said that John 3:16 keeps track of who is in their facility, as well as what bed they’ve slept in and who has been in nearby beds. So if a person did become symptomatic, they could backtrack somewhat to help identify who else may be at risk.
But at the same time they face the same challenges everyone else does. They can’t conduct tests themselves, so the most they can do is call for an ambulance or assist someone with a trip to a medical facility. After that, it’s up to state officials to see if the person has contracted the coronavirus.
At the Tulsa Day Center For The Homeless, there are renovations ongoing that make it impossible to isolate someone if they become symptomatic, director Mack Haltom said.
“Right now we’re just being as precautionary as possible,” Haltom said. “We’re making announcements, asking people to wash hands often, and to keep the building clean. While the weather is nice we’re going to do two major cleanups.”
Haltom said his major concern is what would happen if the center’s volunteers began to stay home. Each night the Day Center feeds dozens of people entirely with food cooked and donated by local church congregations and businesses.
“I haven’t heard of any volunteers backing out at this point, but I’m not sure what we would do if it came to that point,” Haltom said. “We have people to feed, and we’ve got to shelter people. I can’t let all our staff go unless we close the Day Center down.”
In Oklahoma City, some shelters have suspended volunteer activities, and all shelters have set aside some space to isolate a symptomatic person, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance.
“In some of the larger congregate shelters there are very few which have private rooms, mostly you’re talking about something like a barracks,” Straughan said. “The overnight shelters with arrangements like that have acquired shower curtains to essentially vlock off parts of the shelter should that become necessary.”
But, Straughan warned, shower curtains are mostly use for isolation and are not capable of a true quarantine.
“Mostly all we can do is encourage social distancing, encourage people to wash their hands with soap and water and just keep providing tissues and hand sanitizer,” Straughan said.
He said the best the shelters there can do is isolate someone if they show symptoms and then contact the state health department and ask for further instruction.
“Really the biggest thing we can do is work with our staff,” Straughan said. “Most of the population we serve, they don’t get out and about like we do. The biggest risk is probably one of the staff bringing it into the facility. I’d say our guests are probably more at risk from us than we are from them.”
Straughan said local shelters had asked the city of Oklahoma City to not clear out homeless camps during the coronavirus scare in order to allow an already mostly-isolated population to stay isolated.