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Utah’s COVID surge is hitting the homeless population hard

COVID cases are rising among the homeless population amid the latest surge with omicron.
Brian Albers
COVID cases are rising among the homeless population amid the latest surge with omicron.

COVID-19 cases have surged in Utah throughout January, and that’s causing a problem for people who are unsheltered and don’t have a place to isolate.

The United Way of Utah County’s Mountainland Continuum of Care Program is a coalition of local nonprofits and government agencies that works with the homeless population. Heather Hogue, Moutainland’s project coordinator, said their outreach workers are seeing more unsheltered people infected with the virus in Utah County due to the omicron surge.

Over the last week, she said she’s been working to find places to isolate people. Hogue said she’s been sending emails and calling around trying to find out which agencies need funds to pay for hotel stays.

Hogue said they’re using their motel voucher system and Utah County’s isolation center to treat people who are on the streets.

But there are some concerns, due to the advised isolation period. Unlike the general public — that is advised a five-day isolation period — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends unsheltered people stay clear of others for a full 10 days. Hogue said that can get tricky.

“I believe that we have the funding to put people up in a safe place,” Hogue said. “It's just how many hotels are available. What [does] the vacancy rate look like right now? Are they ready for us?”

She said people who are experiencing homelessness and tested positive for COVID can access services through their agency. Hogue said transportation is provided, as well as meals and basic amenities.

Other agencies, like Fourth Street Clinic, a community health center in Salt Lake City, recently received funding from Intermountain Healthcare to help with their COVID-19 efforts. They’ve been providing medical treatment to the homeless population with vaccines and isolation centers.

Janida Emerson, chief executive officer of the clinic, said one of the challenges they are facing is staffing.

“We like all other health care providers and are having staffing issues,” she said. “We've lost a lot of our staff over the course of the last year to burnout. So being able to maintain the operations in a way that we know is going to maximize safety for both patients and staff is becoming increasingly challenging.”

She also said they’ve seen a lot of vaccine hesitancy in the homeless population in Salt Lake, that’s due to trauma people have had in the past.

“It does require a lot of outreach and a lot of additional time to kind of coach somebody through their concerns when it comes to vaccinations,” she said. “Our vaccination rates are lower than they are in the general population.”

So far, about 60% of all Utahns have been fully vaccinated, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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