The year 2020 was a year full of phases. Phases of lockdown and reopening…and locking down again. Different phases for individual counties, and statewide phases. And now, thank goodness, the much-anticipated phases of vaccine distribution: phases 1a, 1b, 2 and 3, spanning from winter 2020 to summer 2021.
I much prefer these phases to the lockdown phases. Being healthy and in my thirties, I will be in that summer Phase 3 category – and I’m fine with that. I can continue to distance from others, work from home, and patiently wait for inoculation.
I know deciding who gets the vaccine first is a complex and monumental decision. But I am left with concern and outright confusion after learning that Coloradans who are staying in shelters will be getting their vaccinations in Phase 3, suggesting that people experiencing homelessness are at no greater risk of COVID than the general population. When the bulk of your life is spent in “public” spaces, you should have first dibs at accessing treatment for a communicable disease. The decision to not prioritize people living in shelters appears even more counterintuitive after a year of seemingly constant homeless encampment sweeps, continuously displacing people in the midst of a pandemic. If we want people to stay in shelters rather than tents, shouldn’t we try to make it safer for folks to do so?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced early on that communities should allow encampments as a way to increase physical distancing, but these sweeps have continued in the Denver metro area. I’ve spoken to several people experiencing homelessness who have shared that their biggest concern about staying in a shelter is COVID, and feel that staying outside (especially in the warmer months) is safer than sleeping in a congregate setting. That concern has proven to be legitimate. Because of the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers, screening for and tracking symptoms haven’t been enough to prevent outbreaks within shelters. Positivity rates in homeless shelters here in Denver have been higher than in the general population, and smaller shelters in Colorado have had an even harder time limiting the spread.
On top it being inherently difficult to limit the spread of COVID in shelters, there is even more concern when considering the health issues that have been shown to complicate COVID symptoms. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to have physical health issues than the general population — the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that people experiencing homelessness are up to six times more likely to have diabetes and heart disease than the general population. By now we all know that diabetes and heart disease are among the health issues that can increase the risk of death for people with COVID.
In a time when community care is more important than ever, we should be prioritizing the health and safety of our most vulnerable community members. With concern about the safety of staying in shelters and greater likelihood of physical health issues that compound COVID symptoms, contrasted with continuous displacement following encampment sweeps, there is a clear need for this population to be considered for vaccination ahead of our lowest-risk Coloradans.
Katie Calhoun is a social worker and currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
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