This winter's flu season is particularly bad, but it's especially dangerous to people without housing, who can be more likely to catch the flu and have a tougher time shaking it, according to service providers.
The illness swept through a Tacoma shelter called Nativity House last month, sickening about 30 of the people staying there plus some staff, according to Denny Hunthausen, a director of the organization that runs the shelter, Catholic Community Services.
Such outbreaks are a hazard whenever you have large numbers of people gathering in close quarters. Nativity House shelters about 170 people on a typical night and far more on extremely cold ones.
Hunthausen said last month's outbreak wasn't even as serious as one last year, which forced a large portion of the staff to stay home.
“A lot of our part-time workers were working many more hours, some of them getting the flu as well, some of our managers and so on," he said.
Life outside the shelter poses its own risks, said Clarivel Manzueta, a nurse who helps run Tacoma's free Neighborhood Clinic.
"When you're home, you can clean your home," she said. "You can wash your hands. But, when somebody's homeless, they're sharing on the street any sickness that somebody else has."
Plus, spending time outside in the cold and lacking proper nutrition can weaken one's immune system and make recovery more difficult, Manzueta said. It also leaves people without housing more vulnerable to complications from the flu.
Hunthausen said his staff at the shelter takes precautions during flu season, including disinfecting surfaces more frequently and making face masks available.
If someone does get sick, they're referred to St. Joseph Medical Center. Then, they're allowed to rest in the shelter's sleeping quarters during the day, outside the normal nighttime operating hours.
"It's one thing to be sick when you have a support system," Hunthausen said. "While these folks do have communities often that they build, they often are not as connected as we might be to a family. It causes them to feel more vulnerable and more exposed. And so it's important for us to create environments that are welcoming."
Manzueta said if someone gets sick and lacks a home, it's important for that person to seek medical care and find a warm place to rest where fluids and food are available.
"Find a shelter," she said. "You need to actually stay a certain temperature to fight infection."
Organizations across Western Washington provide medical care to low-income, uninsured, or underinsured people. They include: