Newark launches coronavirus testing for city’s entire homeless population

Posted May 04, 2020

In an effort to reach a population particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, Newark began testing its homeless residents for the virus on Monday morning.

The voluntary process launched at an airport hotel that serves as emergency homeless housing for 194 and the goal is to ultimately offer tests to all of the roughly 2,200 homeless people living in the state’s most populous city.

Newark partnered with the hotel operator last month as part of a plan by Mayor Ras J. Baraka to provide short-term housing for the city’s homeless — called “residents without addresses” in Newark — as the pandemic raged around the globe.

The city is now sheltering more than 1,800 people in 21 locations on a daily basis in an effort to slow transmission of COVID-19.

“This was a critical part of our strategy,” Baraka said in a statement. “We had to get these people off the street and inside for their own safety and the safety of others. We were able to entice many of them to come indoors, and today we start testing those who have so far been asymptomatic, to gather more data about how this disease has spread.”

The homeless face a greater chance of contracting the virus and spreading it because of their unpredictable movements — it’s hard to shelter in place when you don’t have a place — and the fact that this virus can be spread by those showing no symptoms, explained Dr. Mark Wade, director of Newark’s Department of Health and Community Wellness. The department is conducting the tests and Wade is leading the effort.

“It doesn’t give an opportunity for the virus to be controlled in terms of its spread,” Wade said.

Newark officials described the citywide homeless testing campaign as a first in New Jersey and possibly the nation.

After the hotel, testing will continue until all 21 homeless shelters have been covered.

Wade described an “aggressive outreach and engagement program” intended to make contact with these residents on the streets and encourage them to come indoors. The city contracts with Bridges, Inc., a homeless outreach organization, which is out in the community on a daily basis interacting with these citizens.

“We literally have a hotel room for them to shelter in,” Wade said Monday, adding that they receive three meals a day and access to various medical services in a safe environment.

For its testing, the city is using a new and less-intrusive nasal swabbing method that’s more comfortable, quicker to apply and safer for the medical staff, Wade said. Every staff member at each shelter is also being tested.

Test results are returned in 24 to 48 hours.

Anyone who tests positive will be quarantined for 14 days under medical supervision, unless they require hospitalization.

They will quarantine in a separate hotel already designated for COVID positive homeless residents, Wade said. Once cleared, they would return to their original shelters.

While the city cannot force someone to seek treatment or self-quarantine, “we have public health and the law behind us,” Ward said, noting that a positive patient could no longer stay in one of the non-COVID shelters. His hope is that the various professionals involved, including medical and mental health providers, will convince residents to follow treatment recommendations.

Some homeless residents previously tested positive for the virus, Ward said, though he didn’t have figures available Monday.

Those being tested under the program rolled out this week are asymptomatic, since anyone already showing symptoms would have previously been referred for treatment, Ward noted.

Gloves and masks have been distributed to homeless citizens as part of the outreach effort.

“I think we have collectively been successful in helping these residents without addresses to understand the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis and are getting them to safety, which is not always an easy thing to do,” Wade said. “This has been a novel, life-saving approach and I don’t know of another major city in the country that has done this.”

Newark’s Contact Tracing Task Force, which tries to identify anyone who may have come in contact with an infected person, will take on any positive cases from the homeless testing program. The task force has a goal of tracing about 500 cases a day across the city.

Those working with Newark on the homeless testing program include Salvation Army, Bridges, Inc. Outreach and Engagement, the Newark Homeless Coalition, the Essex Continuum of Care and the Newark Homeless Commission.

As of Sunday, Newark has reported 5,805 positive cases and 443 deaths, while all of Essex County has seen 14,624 cases and 1,282 deaths. Statewide, the death toll is more than 7,900.

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