Arizona's Largest Homeless Shelter Ramps up Anti-Coronavirus Measures

The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Service in September 2019.
The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Service in September 2019. Elizabeth Whitman
The state's largest homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix will ramp up efforts to guard against the novel coronavirus.

No cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have been reported at the Human Services Campus, which includes the shelter and provides legal, social, medical, and other services to hundreds of people per day. So far, Arizona has two confirmed cases and four presumptive positives. The Department of Health Services expects more.

Information about the virus is posted around the campus. Verbal and written information about the virus and preventing its spread are being given to clients at intake, and they are asked to immediately apply hand sanitizer or wash their hands, according to the Human Services Campus and the Central Arizona Services Shelter, commonly referred to as CASS.

New, hourly "sterilizing wipe downs" have been added to the daily cleaning regimen, which is done with heavy-duty disinfectants, said leaders at the campus and CASS. The campus is taking all these precautionary measures in coordination with the Maricopa County Public Health Department, they added.

CASS is the largest homeless shelter in Arizona, with 470 beds that are full every night. People sleep on mattresses encased in plastic laid out on the floor in close proximity to each other, in bunk beds, or in cots separated by a low barrier.

These precautionary efforts do not appear to extend to the encampment of hundreds of people in the vicinity of the campus and the shelter, who sleep and live on the city's sidewalks along 11th and 12th avenues and the streets between.

"I am not aware of specific encampment outreach," Amy Schwabenlender, the executive director of the campus, said via email. "I suspect once there is 'community spread' we will need to be more aggressive in educating people on the risks," she added, referring to when people acquire the virus from an unknown source.

If a person at the campus shows flu-like symptoms, staff are supposed to call the campus emergency medical technician, or the fire department if the EMT can't be reached. said Dayna Gabler, CASS's chief development officer.

The EMT or the fire department will decide if that person needs to go to a hospital, based on protocol from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and if the person doesn't, "we will isolate the client to the best of our abilities," Gabler said. She said CASS had considered "some areas for possible separation ... but we are just not able to configure any isolation areas within our shelter walls."

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Police talk with a homeless man in downtown Phoenix in February 2020.
Elizabeth Whitman
The shelter is working with Circle the City, a local nonprofit that provides health care to people who are homeless and is one of 16 organizations on the Human Services Campus. That organization will coordinate isolating patients as needed, Gabler said, and CASS is also working to find out where else it could isolate people who need it, through the county or elsewhere.

So far, the campus had not yet had any people with symptoms that would qualify them for hospitalization, per CDC guidelines, according to Gabler. 

Staff at the campus meet regularly, if not daily, to monitor the situation and discuss what, if anything, they need to do, Schwabenlender said.

The new coronavirus spreads among people through droplets, like the kind you sneeze or cough out, and so far, according to the CDC, it seems that those droplets can infect people "hours to days" after sitting on a surface. Cleaning and disinfecting those surfaces is a best practice for stopping the virus from spreading, the CDC says. 
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.