COVID-19 Homelessness Medicine Nonfiction Observations Policy Seattle

The Space Between Us.

I am one of the few people walking through downtown Seattle these days. Most of the people outside are people who slept outside the night before. Sometimes they are still sleeping in sleeping bags or tattered boxes when I walk past. They’ve always been there, but now that there are much fewer people outside, they seem to be everywhere.

The other people walking through downtown in the morning fall into two groups: People going to work, like me, and people walking their dogs. The people out and about in the morning are much more likely to wear face masks. The evening crowd seems to be younger and they are much less likely to wear face masks.

I see the magnolia trees bloom. Their pastel petals are already falling off to make room for new leaves. The soft pink cherry blossoms are already gone; the tree limbs are already full of fresh green leaves.

The offices now have bottles of liquid hand sanitizer from local distilleries. The hand sanitizer coming out of the wall dispensers have floral and chemical notes.

Every staff person should have their own set of cloth face masks. There are two in a bag. Volunteers sewed and packaged them. One of mine is dark blue with intersecting white lines. The other is light blue with a large pattern that is reminiscent of paisley.

Several people staying in our shelters have tested positive for coronavirus. There haven’t been “clusters” of cases yet, just one here, another one there. Staff show up to work, don their cloth face masks, put on gloves, and wipe down surfaces with disinfectant when they can. Some people staying in shelters cough and sneeze. Most put on the surgical face masks that staff give to them and try to stay away from other people, but where are they to go? A few are unable or unwilling to wear face masks. Staff continue to don their cloth face masks, put on gloves, and wipe down surfaces.

People are moving from congregate shelter settings into motel and hotel rooms. What will happen when people have their own private spaces? Their own bathrooms, their own beds, their own doors that they can lock? This reduces the likelihood of disease transmission. What else does this reduce? Hypervigilance? Paranoia? Pain? Substance use? (Or maybe it increases all of those things?)

The nurses are amazing. They try to assess for respiratory symptoms from six feet away, a subtle dance that we’ve all had to learn how to do quickly. Maybe it’s a chronic cough. Maybe it’s flu-like symptoms. Maybe it’s coronavirus.

The internal coronavirus team is amazing. They organize the waterfall of data and quickly refer people to the county isolation and quarantine sites. The system has started to move faster, but it’s not fast enough. And what are we to do when the isolation and quarantine sites won’t accept our referrals? Who holds the balance between liability and public health? What will the emergency departments say when it is the fear of acute withdrawal, not the actual withdrawal itself, that results in a visit from someone with coronavirus?

When I start feeling angry, I pause and realize that my colleagues in hospitals have even more reasons to feel anger. I’m not misreading the guidance: Following a high risk exposure to someone with confirmed coronavirus, staff should continue to work even if asymptomatic. Of course, I know why: The system needs health care workers to work during this pandemic. But what is the message this sends to individual workers? You might get sick, you might contribute to asymptomatic spread at work. The people who live with you might get sick. Despite this worry for yourself and those around you, please continue to work. And because we don’t have enough tests right now, we won’t test you until you start to demonstrate symptoms.

(What about the grocery store workers and farm workers? Do their employers provide face masks? Are they part of unions? Do they have health insurance?)

You are essential, you are a critical worker, you are immune to worry and anxiety. Right? This is no time to worry about yourself because we also don’t have time to worry about you.

I see the pairs of police officers leaning against their cars on Pike and Pine, their arms crossed. The sun stretches its warm rays across the sound and the new leaves rustle in the spring breeze. My cloth mask is mildly damp from the humidified air moving in and out of my lungs. I make brief eye contact with the person approaching me. We make time to worry about each other and the physical space between us grows.