Health officials prep for possible coronavirus outbreak among LA's homeless population

The streets of Southern California could become one of the new front lines in the fight to contain coronavirus. Public health officials and homeless advocates are taking swift action to protect an extremely vulnerable part of our population and prevent it from spreading.

The risk of the illness spreading at a rapid place is much higher with masses of people living in close quarters in encampments and shelters. Basic hygiene and sanitation is always a pressing matter.

“When you're on the streets where do you have the opportunity to wash your hands? Where do you have the opportunity to even use adequate public toilet facilities? There's only 16 public toilets for thousands upon thousands of people who are on the streets,” said Union Rescue Mission CEO Rev. Andy Bales.

Bales, who lost his leg to infection while helping the needy on LA's Skid Row, knows the dangers all too well. When it comes to coronavirus, Bales said they're bracing for every scenario.

"I think the most vulnerable are those who are going to get sick out on the streets and just imagine they're gonna have a fever, they're gonna have a cough they'll gonna be desperately ill, somewhat kind of like dying in your own fluids," Bales said.

At this time, there have been no reported cases of coronavirus affecting the homeless community. However, under the advisement of top county health officials — one downtown shelter is taking aggressive, proactive steps.

Large spaces have been already been converted into quarantine areas ready to care for the sick.

With a lack of available testing kits, due to high demand, Bales said it's impossible to identify anyone with COVID-19 right away, so they'll begin to take-in anyone suffering from any symptoms immediately — just in case.

“We hope testing kits come, but when I ask — well what about the hospital? Can we take them to the hospital? They said, ‘when someone gets to the point of not being able to breathe, that's when you will send them to the hospital’ before then it's up to us to care for people,” said Bales.

In addition to the new quarantine areas, the Union Rescue Mission has purchased thousands of dollars in medical supplies — from personal protective equipment for the staff to thermometers.

“This is a little scary… serious… but we’re not gonna panic,” said Bales.

The public concern over coronavirus is making a huge push to train and educate everyone who walks through their doors to keep their hands clean.

"It's our biggest challenge — to have people wash and lather and rinse with hot water — and do it everywhere you go," Bales said.

Additionally, the Los Angeles City Council is considering a motion to install sanitation stations at homeless encampments.