Coronavirus: Officials working to prevent outbreak among Los Angeles County's homeless population

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- As a local health emergency is declared in Los Angeles County in response to new coronavirus activity, public health officials are addressing future concerns within the county's homeless population.

"We would love to have a crystal ball and be able to tell you where (COVID-19) is going, who's going to get it ... All we can do is learn from experiences in other places where there have been outbreaks," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director at the county's Department of Public Health.

Ferrer's response, while speaking alongside other county and city leaders outside the Hall of Administration Wednesday morning, as six new local cases have been confirmed.

There are no known coronavirus cases currently within the Los Angeles homeless population.

"This is not a response rooted in panic," said County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

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Of the seven total L.A. County cases, only one patient currently is hospitalized.

While Wednesday's emergency action will assist ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the county, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also addressed concerns specific to the homeless population.

"We are looking at our clinics and our hospitals as places that could take people in and training our homeless outreach workers to identify those signs and talk to people about" coronavirus, Garcetti said. "If they are exhibiting signs, feeling sick, we need to get them in isolation, in a medical facility."

The coronavirus risk to the homeless population is also top of mind for Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission of L.A.

"We are reminding people to wash their hands -- that is the best antidote to combat the coronavirus," said Bales.

Some preventative measures at the Union Rescue Mission include sleeping arrangements.

"We've also had the Department of Public Health come in, and they are going to provide suggestions on how close people should sleep near each other, how far away the bunks should be from each other," Bales told ABC7.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is also calling for extra precautions.

"While this is a challenging issue for everyone, people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable and we must do everything we can to help them," said Ridley-Thomas.

Ridley-Thomas has asked Ferrer about the need to install sanitation stations and implement other measures to prevent any outbreaks among people who live on the streets.

This week, Ferrer plans to meet with leaders of several departments and agencies, including L.A. County's Homeless Initiative and Office of Emergency Management, as well as the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to identify locations were homeless people can be isolated when sick.

While all cases in the county have been linked to specific travel exposure or in patients with direct connections to an already confirmed case, Ferrer is easing public fears.

"We don't have community transmission that we know about today -- what this (emergency declaration) is, is a call for preparedness, no surprises," said Ferrer.
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