Rantz: Seattle’s homeless pose serious coronavirus threat

Mar 1, 2020, 6:43 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2020, 6:20 pm

As the coronavirus spreads in King County, killing six locally, it seems clear that we’re not ready for how Seattle’s out-of-control homelessness will worsen the crisis. And it’s not entirely their fault: a City Council that makes it easy for the homeless to ignore offers of help is why this is such a threat.

We’re learning more about the coronavirus every day. But most alarming: the coronavirus can infect people faster than the flu. And while the coronavirus is generally believed to most seriously impact people with compromised immune systems, the more people who have it, the faster it will spread. That makes it harder to protect the most vulnerable in our population.

Unfortunately, it appears that Seattle’s homelessness population may not just be susceptible to the deadly effects of the virus, they might be why it spreads faster in the region.

How it can spread

R0 (pronounced R-naught) predicts how many people can be infected with a disease when they come into contact with someone who is contagious. Though it’s still hard to pinpoint the R0 for the coronavirus, one person can transmit it to between 1.4 and 3 people. For comparison, the R0 for the flu is 1.3.

While the number of King County coronavirus cases are growing, Seattle City Council is again trying to stall the Navigation Team from cleaning up the encampments and connecting the homeless with resources, including health care and showers. Instead, the council seems content keeping the homeless living in alleyways, parks, and on sidewalks.

Last year, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold led attempts to severely cripple the team. While it ultimately failed, the council has a new socialist voice in Tammy Morales who is equally critical of the team. Given the unprofessional attacks against the Navigation Team at council last week, it seems possible they’re laying the groundwork to defund the program.

Why this matters

Coronavirus can spread in unhygienic environments. And with homeless individuals lacking access to hand sanitizer, let alone showers, soap, and clean clothes, their encampments can very easily become locations for an outbreak. The LA Times notes even more danger:

They may also face more danger from serious infection because of existing illnesses or frequent use of drugs or alcohol — factors with the potential to make a case of COVID-19 more severe.

This becomes especially alarming when homeless individuals ride the bus, visit the public library, sleep near business fronts, and use public bathrooms. If they pick up the coronavirus, it will spread very quickly. They’re mobile and are not always easy to track, making treatment difficult.

If they were in shelters, as the Navigation Team could force if the council would let them, we’d better be able to screen, quarantine, and treat those infected before they spread it across the city.

The concerns

At a news conference over the weekend, King County Executive Dow Constantine didn’t spend much time discussing concerns over the homeless spreading coronavirus.

He promised our buses will be cleaned, training for shelters will be provided, and that information will be shared. But that was it. This is an issue that deserves more urgency.

In California, which has a substantial homelessness crisis, health officials are deeply concerned according to the LA Times.

Jessica Lin, a researcher with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security who has worked with homeless people, said that if the coronavirus reaches homeless people, it would present a potentially fast-moving hazard — both to those living in encampments and to outreach workers, nearby residents and health providers.

Similar concerns are being discussed in Oregon.

Dropping the ball

King County and Seattle are dropping the ball on dealing with this aspect of the crisis. While they come up with plans, they continue to make it more difficult to get people off the streets and into shelters.

Council critics argue the Navigation Team isn’t working because the homeless aren’t taking our offers of shelter. But the council is the very reason why the homeless refuse services: There are no consequences. Contrast Seattle’s approach with what Marysville is doing, and it becomes obvious why Seattle falls so short. That’s not the Navigation Team’s fault. It’s the council’s.

And while Constantine makes mention of the homelessness issue, it wasn’t the focal point nor urgent-sounding. This city and county have been woefully inadequate in dealing with the homelessness crisis. The coronavirus may be the latest example of how badly they’ve failed.

Some reaction.

UPDATE (03/02/20 at 7:55am): Not everyone agrees with my take. A handful of Twitter-activists are mad that we should help get the homeless off the streets so we can ensure they’re safe. One even claims the homeless are no more dirty than the housed. Here are some comments from Progressive heroes.

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Rantz: Seattle’s homeless pose serious coronavirus threat