Vallejo, Touro University, others partnering to help homeless get tested for coronavirus

Vallejo Times-Herald
by Thomas GAse
4/29/2020

Vallejo is doing its best to make sure anyone who needs testing for COVID-19 gets it, and that includes the homeless population.

The City of Vallejo has combined with Touro University, Solano County Behavioral Health, Solano Resource Connect, Meals on Wheels and Fighting Back Partnership to help the homeless get tested as part of Project Roomkey.

Project Roomkey is a first-in-the-nation initiative to secure hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless individuals from COVID-19. The initiative has secured Federal Emergency Management Agency approval for 75 percent federal cost-share for this mission. Its initial goal is to secure up to 15,000 rooms for this purpose — with county partners moving 869 homeless individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 off the street, out of shelters, and into isolation.

La Clinica will administer the testing, while Avellino Labs out of Menlo Park will process the results. On Tuesday the Vallejo City Council approved 3,334 tests that cost $250,000. Vallejo expects to get a reimbursement eventually from FEMA for the tests.

Housing and Community Development Division Manager Judy Shepard-Hall will be leading the cause in the city. She has had plenty of help from Homeless Services Coordinator Racheal Frederick-Vijay.

“Not long after the state announced the shelter-in-place, efforts were made to find out what we were doing with the homeless,” Vallejo assistant city manager Anne Cardwell said. “Judy and Rachael have been very busy with this and have hit the ground running. You have to give them a lot of credit for what they’ve done.”

Cardwell said that when La Clinica administers the tests they will be looking for one of three priorities.

“The first is people that test positive,” Cardwell said. “The second is people who believe that have been exposed and have symptoms and last but not least the third priority will be the vulnerable, such as people over the age of 65 with underlying health conditions.”

As early as March 16, Shepard-Hall said homeless were contacted through a database that had their last cell phone numbers. Shepard-Hall said between 700 and 800 people have replied to the calls and were in the stage of being vulnerable.

“Yes, it’s a little surprising how many homeless people still have a cell phone,” Shepard-Hall said. “But it’s more than just phone outreach. Eventually we well have to go out into the field and try to find some of the individuals, wherever they were known to be sleeping last.”

Early testing was done by La Clinica on Saturday to essential employees at the Cal Maritime Anchor Center on Georgia Street. Touro University is scheduled to begin outreach and wellness checks on Monday to those who responded by cellphone.

“The outreach teams will be deciding soon what areas to hit and as quickly as possible,” Cardwell said. “Whether the tests are administered on the site of the homeless camps or somewhere else still hasn’t been decided.”

Cardwell and Vallejo Public Information Officer Christina Lee said if a homeless person agreed to be tested, they would then be sheltered at Vallejo’s Hampton Inn and Rodeway Inn. Many homeless people, however, won’t leave without their belongings — something the many groups have taken into consideration.

“Occupants are allowed to bring their pets, which we’re guessing will mostly be dogs,” Cardwell said. “We have crates for them as well as food. The occupants can keep some personal belongings with them in the room, but not a huge amount. The rest of their items will be stored on site at the hotels.”

Cardwell and Lee said the testing results, done by Avellino Labs, could take five to six hours, but will likely be a once-a-day routine due to the labs being located in Menlo Park.

While occupants are at the hotel, Touro University would then get involved. Volunteer students would contribute by giving wellness checks and helping with food distribution.

“When COVID-19 started we had a lot of requests to partner with our student volunteers,” said Lisa Norton, Touro’s Dean of College of Education & Health Sciences. “Michele Bunker-Alberts, an assistant professor at Touro, is leading this team. She does a lot of street medicine projects and runs One Love, a nonprofit in Oakland.”

A meeting was then held with an oversight committee last Friday. Norton said there are approximately 200 student volunteers, but all may not want to help.

“We just posted it on campus and we’ve targeted 30, but have 12 volunteers so far,” Norton said on Monday. “The results, once we posted them, were mixed. Some of our 200 volunteers we have for a variety of issues said they preferred to work from home and in safer conditions. Some in the college of medicine are just chomping at the bit to get out there and help people. Of course, we’re also accessing for risk. If these volunteers are living with someone that is elderly and have any kind of health care concerns, we’re asking for them to stay at home.”

Norton said that the students are being promised the best Personal Protective Equipment, but most of the wellness checks would be non-touch. She said that she’s gotten a lot of community requests to help out.

Still, she’s proud Touro is involved.

“I’m part of Vallejo Together, and I think a lot of people who live here, want to help out,” Norton said. “Touro is all about placed-based social justice and really helping out the community you’ve been placed in. A lot of people come to Touro because of their huge passion in that area and it’s incredible to see here. It really shows off our mission and what we as a faculty and staff are involved in. Personally, I think it’s the right thing to do to help out the unhoused and make sure they are doing OK.”

Shepard-Hall said the most difficult part of the process has been funding, but there are also rewarding parts of the project.

“Funding is always an issue, because we’re not San Francisco County or Los Angeles County,” Shepard-Hall said. “So we’ve had to pull together with all our resources and I think we’ve done a good job at that. The most rewarding thing is the possibility, although it hasn’t happened yet, of having the homeless go back to wherever they were living and removing fear for them and getting them healthy.”

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