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Devoted volunteers keep track of Spokane’s homeless community to prevent major outbreak

Kylie Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator, with the Spokane Regional Health District checks in on Shan Anderson, a homeless man living in the Spokane Arena shelter during a screening for COVID-19 on Thursday at the Spokane Arena. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Kylie Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator, with the Spokane Regional Health District checks in on Shan Anderson, a homeless man living in the Spokane Arena shelter during a screening for COVID-19 on Thursday at the Spokane Arena. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Athletic trainers at Whitworth University whose sports seasons were wiped clean.

A retired nurse, feeling antsy at home.

A fourth-year medical student at Washington State University.

A nurse at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center who wanted to contribute even more.

Public health officials have warned that only a thin line separates the homeless in Spokane from the spread of COVID-19.

A small team of volunteers stands firmly on it.

Even as Spokane County moves forward through Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening plan, the Spokane Regional Health District is continuing its efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in homeless shelters.

Every night, a handful of volunteers makes its way through Spokane’s shelters, checking guests for COVID-19 symptoms. If there’s suspicion that the person may have the disease, they are transported to an isolation facility at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, where they are tested and treated.

The aggressive and thorough approach – combined with what is probably a fair amount of luck – has, thus far, helped avoid a single positive test for COVID-19 in its shelter population, despite it being flagged as a vulnerable community.

Spokane’s success thus far is in stark contrast to other cities with sizable homeless populations. As of this week, 341 people who are homeless in Denver had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Denver Post. In Boston, 742 adults who are homeless had tested positive for the virus, according to a station WBUR report in mid-May.

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said he expects to the shelter outreach efforts to continue “indefinitely.”

On Thursday night, the outreach team paced its way through Spokane shelters, using a digital thermometer to check people for fevers and asking them if they’ve felt any of the symptoms that could be related to COVID-19. They also offered some first aid, such as bandaging minor wounds.

Since early April, the outreach team has entered shelters seven nights a week after guests check in.

With only a handful of members, the volunteer team makes quick work of the temporary homeless shelter at the Spokane Arena, which can take in more than 100 guests.

The evening begins at the Spokane Regional Health District’s offices on College Avenue, where they don masks. Volunteers make the quick drive to the arena, where they’re allowed by two security guards into a fenced-in parking lot on Mallon Avenue. After exiting their vehicles, they walk past another security guard, and another fence, to the shelter’s entrance.

Outside, they put on gloves and devise a plan. The beds aren’t numbered, so they break up the area by sections, snaking through to check its dozens of guests.

Retired nurse Barb Wharton approaches the first shelter guest who, at this point some 10 weeks into the pandemic, is accustomed to the routine screening. As Wharton brings her digital thermometer to his forehead, he guesses his temperature will be a perfect 98.6 degrees.

Sorry, Wharton says. It’s 98.3.

Next, Wharton sees a couple of familiar faces. Lisa Rasner is sitting on a bottom bunk with her small Dachshund.

Rasner isn’t overly concerned about the coronavirus and said she’s been healthy, but acknowledged it bothers her that it’s out there floating around.

“I’m not panicking or anything like that,” Rasner said.

Still, she’s happy to be screened for symptoms.

“I like the temperature thing every day because if I’ve got a fever, I want to know about it. If I’m sick, I want to know before anything happens and I’m laying dead in a hospital or something,” Rasner said.

Not everyone appreciates the screening, but “ignore them,” said Michael Stephens, who was also staying in the shelter and sitting in the bed 6 feet from Rasner.

“It’s precautionary measures that need to be taken,” Stephens said.

On Thursday night, Wharton doesn’t have to pull anyone from the shelter for testing. But that’s not always a given.

Sharon Nelson was one of the first shelter residents to be taken to the isolation facility after developing COVID-19 symptoms, although she later tested negative for the disease. She stayed for two days and three nights at the fairgrounds, and “loved every minute of it.”

“It was really interesting, and I met a lot of neat people,” Nelson said.

Nelson wasn’t stressed, she just wanted to find out “either way.”

“I’m almost 80, so not too much freaks me out anymore,” Nelson said.

As they exit, the volunteers use hand sanitizer and prepare to head to the House of Charity, where they will do the same screening process before heading home.

Wharton is a member of the Medical Reserve Corps of Eastern Washington, a list of medical professionals who volunteer their expertise for everything from a community event like Bloomsday to a public health crisis.

“I wanted to do something, I don’t stay home very well,” said Wharton, who last worked as a nurse at Horizon Hospice & Palliative Care.

She volunteers with the homeless outreach team four days a week.

“I’ve had my eyes opened, even more so than they already were, about the plight of the homeless,” Wharton said. “To be able to help with that even just a little bit is awesome.”

With sports at Whitworth University and across the country canceled, athletic trainers Brittany Castilla and Nate Lamberty suddenly found themselves with an unusually open spring calendar.

“This was something to keep us busy and a way to help with the general cause, trying to stop the spread of the virus. In hindsight, I know now that this is a particularly vulnerable population that we’re working with,” Lamberty said.

Castilla has worked with people experiencing homelessness before and is known by her fellow volunteers for having an uncanny ability to remember the names and faces of people she has screened for symptoms. Accustomed to interacting with people all day, Castilla jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.

“Two weeks of none of that, I needed to do something. So, selfishly, I was like ‘Let’s find something,’ ” said Castilla.

Julie Brockbank is a nurse at Sacred Heart, but wanted to engage directly with the community and learn more about what programs are available for people in need.

“It was kind of a neat way to experience and see what’s out there, and get to know people better,” Brockbank said.

Kylie Kingsbury, the Spokane Regional Health District’s homeless outreach coordinator, oversees the team.

She’s the only one paid to be there, but it’s on top of her day job.

“We’ve really been able to benefit from fabulous volunteers who are committed and passionate,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury expects the daily screenings will be one of the last facets of the health district’s COVID-19 response to taper off.

“It’s really hard to have an idea of how healthy people are, or have an idea if an outbreak is going to happen … That’s one of the benefits of this,” Kingsbury said.

Wharton has no idea when it’s going to end, but is prepared to stay aboard “until the powers that be say there’s not that much danger any longer.”

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