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First COVID-19 cases confirmed in King County's homeless population

Swedish Medical Center has launched a mobile COVID-19 testing clinic for people staying in homeless shelters or living in Plymouth Housing buildings.
Will James
Swedish Medical Center has launched a mobile COVID-19 testing clinic for people staying in homeless shelters or living in Plymouth Housing buildings.

Four people staying in King County shelters have tested positive for COVID-19, county officials said, signaling the first signs of the novel coronavirus in the Seattle area's homeless population. 

The four people were staying in at least three different shelters, according to a news release Saturday by health officials in King County.

One case came to light after 77 people staying in shelters were tested by the Seattle Flu Study.

Three shelters also have one confirmed case each, county officials said.

"Public Health is following up with all the affected facilities to conduct a clinical assessment of their residents and ensure infection control is being followed," health officials said in the news release.

Officials said they were not identifying the shelters or releasing information about the patients in order to "protect the privacy of the individuals, shelter staff, and clients."

Officials have rushed to head off an outbreak among people who are homeless, fearing the novel coronavirus could spread quickly among people congregated in shelters, many of whom have underlying conditions that put them at risk for complications. 

The only other publicly reported COVID-19 cases in Washington state's homeless population have emerged in Tacoma, where at least five people have tested positive in two different shelters.

A man who died in California this month was the first public disclosed case of COVID-19 in the United States homeless population. Since then, two deaths and 59 infections have been reported among homeless people in New York City, according to the website Gothamist.

In King County, officials have opened several locations where people without homes can await test results in quarantine or recover from the virus in isolation. They include a motel in Kent, a set of modular units in North Seattle, and a former hotel in Issaquah that officials planned to open Sunday.

Patients at those sites will have meals and snacks delivered to their doors, medical staff monitoring their conditions, and social workers on site, officials said. The King County Facilities Management Division will provide 24-hour security.

Officials also said they've taken steps to spread out shelter populations to allow of social distancing and provide hand-washing stations to people living unsheltered in encampments. 

People who isolate or quarantine in one of King County's sites must agree to stay away from others, not leave, and not have visitors, health officials said. If someone doesn't comply, health officials said they "will take enforcement action, up to and including seeking a court order and involuntarily detaining the patient to protect the public."

King County's top health official, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, signed an order Saturday requiring residents who test positive for the virus and those awaiting test results to follow isolation and quarantine guidelines.

Ten people were staying at county isolation and quarantine sites on Saturday, officials said, adding that more such sites many open in the future. 

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