April 22, 2020 / 11:12 PM / a month ago

Coronavirus spreads easily in U.S. homeless shelters, CDC says

((This April 22 story corrects to say 249 residents and 59 staff members at two homeless shelters in Atlanta were tested, not 1,192 residents and 313 staff members at 19 shelters in 6th paragraph))

Tents set up by homeless people are seen on a corner street as people walk by amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, California, U.S. March 27, 2020. Picture taken March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) - At homeless shelters across the United States where only a few cases of COVID-19 had been identified, testing found much more widespread infection among residents and staff with the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Based on the findings, researchers from the CDC and elsewhere advise testing all residents and staff at homeless shelters with COVID-19 clusters, and when possible, universal testing at shelters with even a single case.

COVID-19 can spread quickly in homeless shelters because they are often crowded, making social distancing a challenge, the researchers, who reported their findings in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), noted. In addition, the homeless often have underlying conditions that increase their risk for severe illness.

At five homeless shelters in Boston, San Francisco and Seattle where two or more cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the preceding two weeks, public health teams tested all residents and staff. Positive results came back for 17% to 66% of residents and 17% to 30% of staff, researchers reported in MMWR.

In Seattle, officials tested residents and staff at 12 shelters where only one case had been identified; 5% of residents and 1% of staff were found to be infected.

In Atlanta, researchers tested 249 residents and 59 staff members at two homeless shelters with no known COVID-19 cases in the prior two weeks. Coronavirus infections were found in 4% of residents and 2% of staff.

A related paper in MMWR by a team of CDC and other public health researchers detailed the spread of coronavirus among three affiliated homeless service sites in King County, Washington. Initially, one resident was infected. Testing for the coronavirus was offered to all residents and staff members; among those tested, 43 were found to have COVID-19.

“In some respects, the issue in shelters is similar to those in nursing homes or prisons,” Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the CDC research, told Reuters by phone.

“The findings are … another example of how the epidemic has highlighted our shortcomings in terms of being able to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens,” he said.

Reuters reported that as of Monday in New York, 43 people in the city-run shelter system had died of COVID-19, and 617 shelter residents and other homeless people had tested positive for the virus. [reut.rs/2KuaR2I]

Reporting by Vishwadha Chander; editing by Nancy Lapid and Leslie Adler

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