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Health officials launch effort to test Madison's homeless population for coronavirus

Health officials launch effort to test Madison's homeless population for coronavirus

Warner Park - screening (copy)

Tanesha Johnson, with Per Mar Security, takes the temperatures of men entering the temporary men's shelter at Warner Park in May. 

People seeking homeless services at two Madison shelters lined up Tuesday to get tested for COVID-19, the first systematic effort to test the local homeless population in the nearly five months since the pandemic began.

The effort, a partnership between UnityPoint-Meriter and Public Health Madison & Dane County, is expected to continue testing guests and staff every other week at the two sites — the Salvation Army shelter on East Washington Avenue and Safe Haven on the east side — as well as at the emergency men’s shelter at Warner Park on the north side and the downtown day shelter The Beacon.

There have been no outbreaks at shelters so far, which health officials say is due to vigilant screening by shelter staff and strict mask policies.

“We’ve been very diligent, but it does seem almost too good to be true,” said Michael Moody, community and partner relations specialist at The Beacon.

But there is concern that people without symptoms, or those who don't report their symptoms, could wreak havoc in close quarters where social distancing is difficult.

Moody contacted public health officials to ask about on-site testing after reading about other shelters across the U.S. that have reported several people who have tested positive for the virus but have had no symptoms.

UnityPoint-Meriter got involved because the organization already has a homeless outreach program.

“When COVID came along, a lot of our work shifted,” said Lauren Jerzak, an outreach nurse at UnityPoint-Meriter.

With a combination of public health staff and volunteers, Jerzak said, 73 people were tested at the two smaller homeless sites. Next week, Jerzak hopes to test at least half the folks at the Warner Park shelter and The Beacon, both of which serve about 80 people a day. But testing is voluntary.

“We know that the first days might be lower because there’s kind of a level of trust that we need to build in order to get folks to feel like it’s OK,” she said.

The test samples will be processed by Exact Sciences laboratories, and results will be available three to five days after they’ve been collected.

The shelters have already enacted measures to keep the coronavirus at bay and protect the most vulnerable. Mask policies have been in place since the early weeks of the pandemic, temperatures are taken upon entry, social distancing practices are observed, and elderly people and those with medical conditions that might make them susceptible to bad outcomes are being housed in hotel rooms. Those with symptoms are taken to a hotel that is serving as a COVID care unit to await testing by public health staff.

“It will be interesting to see what happens now that we’ll be testing asymptomatic folks,” said Jerzak.

She said the shelters have tried to get homeless people tested at the Alliant Energy Center testing station, pop-up sites or other medical facilities, but the logistics didn’t work out.

“It just became too big an endeavor putting somebody in a cab to go get tested, and it’s hard to do if you’re The Beacon and you have 80 folks there,” she said.

Also of concern are the homeless encampments in the city. Some of those staying outdoors receive services at The Beacon and Safe Haven day centers, so testing will be available for them.

“We do have a fair number of camper that come in,” Moody said.

But there are no current plans to set up testing at outdoor encampments, said Jerzak, adding that the availability of testing kits and personnel were a challenge for getting the testing sites set up at the shelters.

“We sure would like to,” she said.

Moody said the way shelters are dealing with the pandemic evolving, especially given that there's no end in sight.

"This has gone on I think longer than all of us had anticipated," he said. "Now it's settling into what's the new routine, how we deal with this as this pandemic continues on into the fall. We're planning all the way into 2021 and just adapting to this."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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