Skid Row homeless community sees first major surge in COVID-19 cases

The homeless community on Skid Row is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, according to leaders who work in the community.

"We're seeing a great increase not only outside [of the Union Rescue Mission], but inside. It's just getting spread wider and wider until it likely will affect us all, and it's been a very tough time becoming like a mini-hospital," said Reverend Andy Bales, the CEO of Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row.

Bales said all but two of the five floors at the Union Rescue Mission are in quarantine or isolation. The mission's sprung structure has become an isolation unit while they care for patients as hospitals are forced to turn people away.

"We had a 79-year-old lady who appeared to have COVID and we called the medics and the medics came, but they said we can't take her because the hospitals are full. When you're at the point where medics can't take someone because the hospitals are full and ambulances are waiting seven hours for a hospital bed and people in the COVID unit are waiting for hours to go into an ICU unit to save their lives, we're in quite a predicament. We have several different places in quarantine and several different places in isolation. We got our gym ready to be our own isolation unit," said Bales.

Bales said since November, there has been a 66% increase in cases. It's the first major surge experienced on Skid Row since the pandemic started.

"In the past, it seemed that people devastated by homelessness because of being loners, out on the streets and maybe not interacting with people who travel, their cases were very low, but since November 30, the cases have gone up 66% and I believe that is happening all over our county," said Bales.

Dr. Anne Rimoin, a Professor of Epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Infectious Disease Division of the Geffen School of Medicine, said the virus is spreading "exponentially" through all communities in LA County.


"This virus takes advantage of all our weaknesses and wherever we have people gathering together, not wearing masks, not social distancing, the virus will take an opportunity to spread. Homeless shelters don't always have great ventilation, not able to keep people apart very well, and people are not always great at wearing masks," said Rimoin.

Rimoin said the virus is more rampant now than it has ever been before.

"In the early days, we didn't have as much COVID circulating in the population so we were not as prone to it. Back in even August, we only had one in 800 people walking around LA County with COVID, potentially able to spread it to others. Now, we're somewhere between one in 50 to 90 people in LA County with COVID. Every six minutes, someone is testing positive with Covid and so it is spreading rampantly in this community and it is not surprising to see it in our most vulnerable communities where people don't have the resources to social distance as well as they would like to, don't necessarily have masks, don't necessarily have the ability to have good hand hygiene," said Rimoin.

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Rimoin also said we don't have a lot of resources for public health in LA County.

"The issue is that now that we have an infectious disease spreading rampantly in the community, we don't have resources to be able to stop it in any community, much less the homeless population," she said.

Rimoin said the new possibly more contagious variant is also a concern in the community.

"We're not doing enough viral surveillance in LA County to really understand where this strain is, but the fact that many of the cases that we have identified have no history of travel, it suggests they got in the community so this variant is already spreading in the community and it's very possible there are other variants equally contagious that are spreading in the community," she said.

Rimoin said it is important for everyone to take precautions in every community as the virus continues to spread.

"It [COVID-19] is more risky today than it was yesterday and the day before. We are in a situation where we have cases of Covid expanding exponentially in Los Angeles and we need to do everything in our power to reduce spread. We are in for a very, very difficult period," she said.

Bales said people have also been stepping up to help the homeless community with donations, including donating pallets of water to the Union Rescue Mission to help keep people hydrated who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

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