Missoula health officials making plans for homeless population amid virus concerns

Kitchen staff prepare meals at the Poverello Center in this file photo. The shelter has closed its food pantry to limit outside visitors from entering the building as concerns over COVID-19 grow. It also has limited all volunteer work to essential functions, such as the kitchen. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Local health officials are working on a response plan to aid Missoula’s homeless population in the event that coronavirus makes its way into the city’s shelters.

But solutions haven’t been easy to come by given Missoula’s lack of a mass quarantine facility, they’ve said.

At twin press briefings on Friday and Sunday, the Missoula City-County Health Department said the possibility of an outbreak in the Poverello Center, or one of the city’s other shelters, hasn’t been overlooked.

It continues to be an issue they’re working to prepare for.

“The biggest concern we have right now is what we’d do if it got into our homeless population,” said Cindy Farr, who’s leading the local pandemic response. “We’re working to identity if there’s a resource somewhere that we can tap into in order to isolate those people.”

The Poverello Center said it was closely monitoring the health of its staff and clientele while implementing safety precautions in hopes of preventing an outbreak.

The shelter has closed its food pantry to limit outside visitors from entering the building. It also has limited all volunteer work to essential functions, such as the kitchen.

“We’re working really hard to make sure we protect the safety of our clients here at the Poverello Center who are particular at risk of the virus,” said Jesse Jaeger, the shelter’s director of development. “We’re trying to implement policies and procedures and try to limit the virus from getting into the Poverello to keep our clients as healthy as possible throughout this crisis.”

With overnight temperatures still dangerously low, the shelter continues to house and feed clients. While health officials have been looking for locations to quarantine members of the homeless population in the event of an outbreak, no suitable facility has been found.

“We’re working really closely with the health department should the guests of the Poverello Center come down with coronavirus or come into contact with people with the virus,” said Jaeger. “There’s not a plan in place yet. We’re working hard to come up with solutions to address that issue.”

On Sunday, health officials stressed the importance of case tracing, or identifying individuals who have come into contact with those who have tested positive for the virus. On most occasions, those individuals can self quarantine, though that could be challenging on a large scale and within a population that has nowhere else to go.

Health Officer Ellen Leahy said those concerns have made their way to the governor’s pandemic task force. It’s also an issue they’re working to resolve locally.

“In the old days, we could quarantine people together, but that’s not a good idea,” said Leahy. “You can put people who are sick together, but when you quarantine people, you don’t want to put them in an area all together unless you have property separation, proper protocols to bring supplies – clean and dirty – in and out.

“There are some facilities and practices we used long ago we can’t use, or the facilities don’t exist anymore,” she added. “We’re talking creativity about what we can do, but the state as a whole doesn’t have those types of institutions available.”

Farr said the local response team and its partners are broken into groups, each focusing on different needs. That includes the city’s shelters, she said.

“We’re working closely with them to identify other resources and at what point we need to change our protocols,” said Farr. “They are putting some other protective measures in place at this time.”