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Housing & Homelessness

Coronavirus strikes skid row as Union Rescue Mission reports first confirmed case

In the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on skid row, an employee of the Union Rescue Mission has tested positive.
In the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on skid row, an employee of the Union Rescue Mission has tested positive.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In the first confirmed case on skid row, an employee of the Union Rescue Mission has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and is being treated at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center.

The Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission, said 95 residents and several employees have been quarantined on the mission’s third floor, which houses a live-in recovery program and is where the unnamed employee lives.

“We put the entire third floor in isolation, delivering meals in full protective gear, hoping they don’t come down with symptoms,” Bales said.

Bales said the L.A. County Public Health Department is working in the mission’s courtyard monitoring anyone else who may have been infected. The employee’s recent contacts also are being tracked down.

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“Everybody that who came in contact with him has been put in quarantine,” Bales said. “We gave a map to the Department of Public Health on his whereabouts for the last few days he was working. They know where he’s been. Most places weren’t highly occupied with people.”

Bales said Tuesday night that the man was still on a ventilator but had shown some improvement.

Carl Kemp, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said two people in particular who had close contact with the hospitalized employee are now in isolation. County health officials are checking other employees and homeless clients at the mission for symptoms at least once a day and are working on transferring others to other sites.

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Public health experts fear that an outbreak among the city’s homeless population could be devastating, as many are elderly and have preexisting health conditions and weakened immune systems from living outdoors in encampments, putting them at particular risk for developing severe COVID-19.

The crowded and cramped conditions of skid row have been especially concerning, given the challenge of those who live there to practice social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

Union Rescue Mission, a privately funded provider of homeless services, occupies a five-story building in the 500 block of South San Pedro Street, in the heart of skid row. It operates individual and family shelters, as well as a transitional program in which enrollees pay a portion of their way.

Bales said the employee who tested positive had not had much contact with the portion of the mission where homeless people typically come and go from the streets during the day.

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“Every floor is kind of an island to itself, except for elevators,” he said.

The employee, who previously was homeless, graduated from the mission’s recovery program, the Christian Life Discipleship Program, and was hired by the mission and continues to live there.

Bales said the employee first complained of not feeling well on Friday and went to urgent care.

On Saturday, he got worse and, according to Bales, said, “I’m very tired, and I’m off.” He then checked into an emergency room and was quickly transferred into intensive care.

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The employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Monday afternoon, Bales said.

Asked about the confirmed case on skid row, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was “absolutely worried,” because the coronavirus has the potential to “spread like wildfire” through skid row.

“We can’t have too much help,” he said during his daily briefing on the spread of the virus.

Garcetti said he told county officials on Monday that he’d like to see a focus on renting hotel rooms downtown so homeless people will have a place to go that is not far away from skid row in order to isolate or quarantine. He also said testing for the virus has begun on skid row.

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The city has run out of sources for getting more hand-washing equipment for the public, he said, but was trying to acquire more portable toilets.

Mike Arnold, chief executive of one of skid row’s other large shelter providers, the Midnight Mission, said he had heard about a confirmed case at the Union Rescue Mission and that it was a great cause for concern.

“We’re on skid row. It’s a hard place to recover in the best of times,” he said.

A recently released study estimated that nearly 2,600 homeless people in the Los Angeles area alone will need to be hospitalized for COVID-19; about 900 of them will require intensive care; and more then 400 could die. That could have a ripple effect on hospitals already sounding the alarm about a shortage of resources, including ventilators and beds, as the coronavirus cases continue to surge.

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Arnold said there are no confirmed cases at Midnight Mission yet.

“Since the outbreak, we have clamped down with our infection control,” Arnold said. “For the last two weeks, we have been screening for temperature and cough or shortness of breath with all of our residents and staff.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, clients of the Midnight Mission’s recovery program could leave for medical appointments, work and a few other specified reasons. Now they are restricted from leaving with the exception of medical appointments and work.

Arnold said he worries about the virus coming to his mission and having a “horrible outcome on a very frail and fragile population.”

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Arnold, who previously ran the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said not enough is being done to get the city’s most vulnerable population out of congregated living spaces and into isolated settings where they’re more likely to survive this outbreak.

“I’m concerned that there doesn’t seem to be a plan to take people who are particularly vulnerable, who are already in shelters, and get them to a safer place,” he said.

Herb Smith, CEO of the L.A. Mission on skid row, echoed those concerns but added that his shelter has yet to see a confirmed case. One person is in quarantine, though, and he expects the test to be negative.

Lorena Sanchez, director of communications for the Downtown Women’s Center, also said no cases had been confirmed among the shelter’s employees or homeless clients.

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Melanie Mason contributed to this report.


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