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Contact Tracing For COVID-19 Can Be Challenging For Salt Lake's Homeless Population

Photo of the entrance of a new shelter.
Rocio Hernandez
The South Salt Lake Men's Resource Center has the most coronavirus cases of any homeless shelter in the county. When a patient tests positive, health officials work to identify people who may have come in contact with the patient and could be exposed.

As of Monday, 124 clients at the Men’s Resource Center in South Salt Lake have tested positive for coronavirus. A handful of cases have also been confirmed at other homeless resource centers throughout Salt Lake County. 

But without addresses or phone numbers, Salt Lake County Nursing Supervisor Tara Scribellito said it can be challenging to contact trace or figure out who else has been exposed.

“You do the best that you can,” Scribellito said. “If you have a name and a date of birth, we look them up in all sorts of different ways to try to see if there’s any contact information, and then go from there.”

The risk of exposure is high at homeless resource centers because of the close living quarters. Health officials recommend keeping people 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus, but that’s proven difficult with hundreds of people staying there any given night. 

Scribellito said as soon as someone tests positive at any homeless resource center, they get moved to an isolation facility.

“We’re really working to try to identify the cases within the men’s resource center immediately and remove them from that situation,” she said. “We put them into an area where they won’t expose other people.”

Once they’re moved, staff then conducts interviews about who they may have exposed to the virus.

Local hospitals also work to connect Salt Lake’s health department with people experiencing homelessness who may be exhibiting symptoms. 

Despite the challenges, Scribellito thinks the county’s contact tracing efforts have been successful because they’ve been able to connect with many people who have possibly been exposed. She said people are willing to work with the health department to keep their communities safe.

Emily Means covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @Em_Means13

Correction 8:47 p.m. MDT 5/5/2020: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect total number of postives cases at the Men’s Resource Center in South Salt Lake. As of Monday, 124 clients staying there tested positive for coronavirus. Twenty-nine additional men  have tested positive and while they listed their address as the center, they aren’t current clients.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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