Multnomah County Officials Preparing for Greater Risk of Coronavirus Among Homeless People

"We recognize how difficult this emerging outbreak can be for people who are unhoused and the people trying to help them."

A homeless man sleeps in a Portland doorway in January 2017. (Joe Riedl)

Portland's homeless population and people living in homeless shelters may be at particular risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, Multnomah County officials say.

"We're worried about people in shelters and camps being at greater risk of becoming sick because they live in more crowded conditions, often have underlying medical conditions and sometimes have substance use and mental health issues that complicate their ability to protect themselves," says county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.

"So, we recognize how difficult this emerging outbreak can be for people who are unhoused and the people trying to help them," Sullivan-Springhetti tells WW. "We're going to be trying to help in whatever way we can."

On Friday, Oregon Health Authority announced the first case of the novel coronavirus in the state—a case with no known links to overseas travel.

Related: First Coronavirus Case is Detected in Oregon, State Health Officials Say

That announcement comes nearly a month after the first case in Washington state was reported—but that case was a man who had visited China. Oregon's case, along with three new cases in Washington announced in the past 48 hours, appeared to be transmitted locally.  The first U.S. death was reported in Washington State this morning.

Related: Seattle Resident Dies From Coronavirus

The first locally-transmitted cases of novel coronavirus are emerging in a part of the country with a disproportionately large percentage of people sleeping outdoors or in shelters. Officials are concerned that could lead to the disease being transmitted rapidly among a vulnerable population.

The Seattle Times reported today that King County is looking for ways to help homeless people who become ill recover—by giving them a place to stay other than in shelters.

Local health officials have also started preparations for how to handle the impact on homeless people.

So far in Multnomah County, Dr. Jennifer Vines, the tri-county health officer, provided a briefing to service providers on Friday, and also briefed Mayor Ted Wheeler and County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury on the "needs of this population," says Sullivan-Springhetti.

On Saturday, Vines was on a conference call with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and Multnomah County Public Health. They spoke to shelter and other service providers "to share initial infection control guidance and elicit information, planning and resource needs."

The county plans to meet Tuesday and develop more detailed advice.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.