The first coronavirus test returned positive for an individual experiencing homelessness in Fresno this week.
The health department reported a total of 82 cases of the coronavirus in Fresno on Wednesday. This was the first confirmed infection in the homeless community.
A small number of unhoused individuals have tested negative, and 10 more await results, according to Sonia de la Rosa, principal administrative analyst for Fresno County.
Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County interim health officer, said homeless encampments “are at an increased risk of having epidemics or clusters of cases come out.”
The Fresno County Health Department deployed personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers to people experiencing homelessness as well as their outreach teams, Vohra added.
De la Rosa, who runs the county’s homelessness efforts, said her department was not aware of the individual’s contact with the rest of the community before entering the hospital. She first learned of the situation when contacted by the hospital. The county health department declined to comment on the demographics of any Fresno cases.
The individual was quarantined in a hotel that officials declined to identify alongside those awaiting results. The case was not severe enough to require hospitalization. The hotel can house up to 14 people.
The county is working to secure another hotel with 20 to 25 available units, and Fresno has received 28 of 1,305 state trailers to quarantine individuals awaiting test results.
Around the state, several cases of coronavirus have cropped up among the homeless. One person tested positive in Los Angeles this week. Weeks after the death of another person in Santa Clara, Bay Area health officials have not disclosed how many coronavirus patients are homeless. But kits are scarce, and officials have historically struggled to help, let alone test, unsheltered individuals.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has authorized $150 million in emergency funding for homeless COVID-19 efforts. The Fresno-Madera area received $2 million.
With that money, Fresno provided 335 new beds, 306 of which have been filled. Only nine were available Wednesday morning because of the way the rooms are configured, De La Rosa said. One room, for example, has a three-person family and an empty bed because they don’t want to introduce a stranger. Units with healthy residents are reconfigured regularly to make more room.
De La Rosa said the county is working to bring as many as 200 more beds online over the next few days in an unused building operated by the Fresno Rescue Mission.
But a recently released study says that’s not nearly enough.
The University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Boston University researchers determined Fresno and Madera counties would require 3,004 total new units to manage the effects of the coronavirus outbreak at the cost of over $84 million. They used federal point in time numbers, adjusted for an assumed 40 percent undercount.
If homeless people are on average biologically 15 years older than they are, then the researchers estimate that 134 will be hospitalized, 45 will need critical care and 22 will die in Fresno.
Across the state, they estimate that 7,633 people will be hospitalized, 2,561 will need critical care, and 1,238 will die.
Serina Quedo, a 46-year-old Fresno woman experiencing homelessness, said she wanted to follow shelter-in-place orders but had no idea where to stay after she ran out of money to stay at a motel.
Local shelters have been consistently at capacity, and many of the bathrooms she used to rely on around the city are no longer open to the public.
“It’s been pretty scary. People just don’t know what to do,” she said.
Homeless advocate Dez Martinez said, “it’s going to get a lot uglier.”
“It’s sad because it’s going to infect the whole homeless community,” she said. “They’re travelers. They travel throughout our city and county. They go grocery shopping, they go on the bus, they go to the doctor’s office.”
The county has purchased and set up 52 hand-washing stations around Fresno and Madera.
The Center for Disease Controls and Prevention issued guidelines to stop encampment clearings, as they may cause individuals to disperse and pass on the virus more easily. While the county has suspended encampment clearings, the city Homeless Task Force enforcement has only stopped clearing around the area of the Poverello House in downtown Fresno.
“In situations where individuals who are experiencing homelessness are having a negative impact on a resident or a business, they will be asked to move. They will be given the opportunity for services and will be asked to move,” said H Spees, director of strategic initiatives for the city of Fresno.
“There’s a tension between preserving the dignity of the most vulnerable human beings and preserving the quality of life for residents and businesses on the other side,” he added.
Advocate Mike Rhodes hopes the health crisis may mobilize officials to improve the homeless situation in the long run.
“We could literally end homelessness and save money doing it. That’s always been true, but maybe it will take a pandemic like this to open people’s eyes to see how closely we are all connected,” he said.
* Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
* CalMatters reporter Jackie Botts contributed to this report.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.