COVID-19 cases among homeless in Los Angeles County less than overall population, officials say

HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 18, 2020 - - Nurse Richelle Legaspi, a member of the outreach team with The Center, gives Gonzalo Cresci, who is homeless, a test for COVID-19 in East Hollywood on August 18,, 2020. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty (Getty Images)

People experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County are testing positive for the coronavirus at rates far lower than among the population at large, a health official said Wednesday as he breathed a sigh of relief about the fate of the area’s most vulnerable residents during the pandemic.

The percent of homeless people who tested positive for COVID-19 was 1.87% as of Aug. 27 after tests were administered to 19,715 individuals, according to LA County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis. At least 1,589 cases of the coronavirus have been identified among the homeless population, with 41 deaths, he said.

While acknowledging the tragedy of the deaths, Davis said in general the fears health officials had about rapid virus spread among those who live in shelters and on the streets “have not been realized” in the county that’s been the epicenter of the outbreak in California.

“At the outset of the pandemic we had grave concerns about this population,” Davis said. “They are unable to stay at home and often live in encampments and at are higher risk for illness.”

More than 2.3 million of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents have been tested for the virus, for an overall positive rate of 10.2%, according to the Department of Health on Wednesday. The county, California’s largest, had 243,935 cases and 5,878 deaths.

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Davis did not speculate about the reasons driving the comparatively low case rate among the homeless. But Mel Tillekeratne, a leading Los Angeles homeless advocate, said he believes it’s because a majority — about 70% — of the county’s homeless live outside.

“They are outdoors, in tents along freeways and riverbeds, where they can stay separate and where there’s stronger airflow. We know that being outdoors lowers the risk,” said Tillekeratne. He is the founder of the Shower of Hope, which contracts with local governments to provide pop-up stations with showers and other services for homeless people.

In addition, LA’s homeless are increasingly conscientious about wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the virus, he said.

Davis said there were early spikes in cases among homeless people in April and May due to an outbreak at a large shelter in downtown Los Angeles. Since then, the numbers have remained fairly stable, he said.

The county planned to provide additional data on homeless deaths from COVID-19 in the weeks to come, he said.

A January count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that there were more than 66,400 homeless people living in Los Angeles County — by far the largest single concentration in the state. That included more than 41,000 within the city limits. Both figures were up more than 12% from the previous year.

Across the state, roughly 22,000 people have been moved out of shelters, vehicles and rough streets to ride out the pandemic in hotels. It was part of Project Roomkey, an effort Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in March to shield some of the state’s 150,000 estimated vulnerable homeless.

RELATED: Newsom: Struggling California homeowners, renters hit hard by pandemic protected through Feb. 2021

Newsom said Wednesday that California would spend $600 million by the end of the year to convert hotels and apartment buildings into permanent supportive housing for homeless residents under the initiative.

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