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Homeless Community Seeing Effects Of Coronavirus Panic Buying While Advocates Prep For Outbreak

Melorie Begay/KLCC News

Advocates in Lane County are scrambling to ensure the unsheltered community is prepared for a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Medical supply shortages and access to water are only a few of their concerns.

“We just have a significant lack of hygiene options for folks and they don’t know what they’re going to do to keep themselves safe. They’re at the highest risk of exposure,” said Heather Sielicki a coordinator with Whitebird Clinic.

Health officials recommend washing hands with soap and warm water to prevent contracting coronavirus. But, that can be a big challenge for the unhoused community since there are so few public restrooms, Sielicki said.


The second best option is to use hand sanitizer. Whitebird has enough stock for use within their programs, said director Chris Hecht. But, he said they don't have enough to distribute out on the streets.

The alcohol-based cleanser is a highly coveted item that’s been sold out across Eugene and Springfield. Stores including Fred Meyer, Winco, and Costco have placed limits on how much product customers can buy. 

For example, at Fred Meyer customers are only allowed to purchase five cold, flu, and sanitization items per visit. Even so, supplies are low and many shelves remain empty.

Panic Buying Is Disrupting Normal Operations

By far, the most in demand item across the globe and in Lane County, are face masks. Officials have cautioned the general public against stockpiling masks because medical professionals use them on a daily basis. 

“As it stands right now, Whitebird’s dental program has roughly three weeks worth of personal protective equipment in stock with no way to resupply,” Hecht said. The dental clinic may have to shut down until they can find more.

Hecht said they purchase supplies from medical equipment wholesalers, but it's unknown when suppliers will have new inventory.

In Springfield, clinic manager Sue Sierralupe with Occupy Medical is struggling as well. Gloves, rubbing alcohol, and hand sanitizer are all products she hasn't been able to find.

Although some folks in the community have donated extra items to the free health clinic, she said a few people have told her they’re hesitant to give away supplies.

“There’s a big difference between stocking up, and stockpiling,” Sierralupe said.

When it comes to face masks like the N95 mask used for respiratory protection, she questioned whether people actually know how to use them.

“You need to be fitted for that...it’s so important to have a perfect fit for that. If not, the mask is just as good of use to you as a bandanna,” she said.

Occupy Medical’s doing everything they can to stay open, Sierralupe said. She’s hoping those who may have bought medical supplies in a panic will assess whether they need them. 

“If [Occupy Medical’s] already having trouble now, what’s it going to be like next month?” she asked.

Prepping For An Outbreak

At the moment, individuals showing signs of coronavirus are recommended to stay away from others to avoid spread. But, for the unhoused that can be a problem.

“It’s pretty impossible to self quarantine at home, if you don’t have a home,” Hecht said. 

The unhoused have a high risk of symptoms worsening because of their living conditions, Hecht said. And if they end up in a shelter, they risk community transmission due to cramped spaces.

While there have been no official cases in Lane County yet, health officials this week said it’s likely COVID-19 is already here.

“We’re preparing for an outbreak in ways that we prepare for any other outbreak, with the understanding that there’s some unanswered questions about coronavirus,” Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr said. Farr, a member of the Health and Human Services Board, said he’s confident they have the right protocols in place. 

“In the past, we’ve rented hotel rooms for people to stay in should they test positive and need to be isolated,” Farr said. The county’s also exploring options for emergency shelters and ensuring they have a solid medical supply chain.

The biggest concern now for Whitebird and other organizations is how to handle services like the Egan Warming Center, which is run by St. Vincent De Paul. Seven centers are set to open this Saturday as temperatures are expected to fall below 30 degrees.

“Not surprisingly, volunteers have questions and concerns about COVID exposure in an emergency shelter setting, so we’re trying to figure out the best ways to support an activation to make sure people are safe,” Sielicki said. Sielicki adds they have guidance from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, but following recommendations in a short amount of time will be tricky.

In an email to volunteers, Egan Warming Centers said they remain vigilant about hygiene and cleanliness. They also stated they will follow recommendations set by Lane County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority, and cautioned sick volunteers to stay home.

Whitebird is part of Community Organizations Active in Disasters. The group is comprised of more than two dozen organizations including St. Vincent De Paul. They’re expected to meet on Friday with Lane County Public Health to evaluate response plans.

©? 2020 KLCC 

Melorie Begay is a multimedia journalist for KLCC News. She was the Inaugural KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She has a bachelors in Multimedia Journalism from the University of New Mexico. She previously interned at KUNM public radio in Albuquerque, NM and served as a fellow for the online news publication New Mexico In Depth.
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