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Testing vulnerable people helps us protect our communities

Public health focuses its testing resources where disease is spreading.

You’ve heard a lot about testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. We share test results daily on our website. Testing information is one indicator that informs decisions about reopening businesses safely and how to best protect our health. 

Our healthcare system tests most people who think they might have COVID-19. 

We get many questions about testing, who can get tested, and where. Most people should ask their healthcare provider about testing. Tests are now generally available to everyone who needs them.

Public health tests vulnerable groups to track and prevent disease spread.

Public health tracks test results to better understand where and how disease spreads. We test certain vulnerable groups to help prevent greater spread of disease in our community. Even as more testing resources become available, we prioritize resources to help identify where disease is spreading.

In March, we received a few positive test results from people who were living homeless. We believed this community might be at high risk for COVID-19.  Many people who live homeless are older, lack regular access to healthcare, have underlying health conditions, don’t have adequate access to sanitation and hygiene, and often cannot maintain physical distance from others. Those working most closely with unsheltered people immediately took steps, following public health recommendations.

A woman wearing P P E holds a test tube labeled COVID-19 test

In May, we tested people living homeless and staff at 2 locations—a Tacoma shelter and a temporary site in Puyallup. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Pierce County Human Services, Pierce County Emergency Management, City of Puyallup Emergency Management, Medical Reserve Corp and the shelters helped make it happen. So far, we’ve had good news. No new positive cases! Currently, we don’t see evidence that COVID-19 is spreading among those living homeless.

Why aren’t we seeing more spread in our homeless populations? We credit the early and rapid response of shelter providers and outreach teams who followed public health guidance and educated those living homeless on how to protect themselves and others. Shelters took steps to create more physical space, increase access to handwashing and improve hygiene. They also increased cleaning and sanitizing of frequently touched surfaces.

While COVID-19 testing is new, our partnership with shelter providers isn’t. We’ve worked with homeless shelters and service providers to prevent communicable diseases for years. Last year, we provided a variety of testing and vaccination efforts to those living homeless. This includes services for hepatitis A and B, flu, Tdap, and pneumonia vaccination, and screening for tuberculosis and STDs. Strong relationships help us achieve our shared goals to protect our communities–especially those most vulnerable.

In public health, we follow what the data tells us.

CDC guidance tells us testing is best when people show symptoms so we can see if disease is present. While individuals should continue to seek testing through the healthcare providers, we need to also focus testing resources on those most at risk.

We have another testing event planned at a large shelter in the weeks ahead. If the negative test trend continues, this good news suggests the disease isn’t currently spreading among those living homeless, and we will press pause on further testing at shelters.

If we receive positive test results from a person living homeless, we will continue to test others who may shelter with that person. We can then follow up with larger testing events if needed.

The cumulative COVID-19 rate among Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander residents is 5-times higher than the white, non-Hispanic rate in Pierce County. Black or African American and Hispanic residents also appear to be affected at higher rates. We are working with these communities to reduce spread of disease. Testing helps us determine next steps.

Washington State Department of Health provided testing resources to test individuals living homeless. Pierce County CARES funding will allow us to increase testing for those most at risk of COVID-19.

If you know someone experiencing homelessness, encourage them to call 2-1-1 for help with housing and other vital social services.

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