New testing initiative identifies COVID-19 clusters in Oahu’s homeless camps

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Updated: Nov. 19, 2020 at 4:49 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - On a busy sidewalk next to Moiliili Neighborhood Park a team of homeless service providers made their way from tent to tent Thursday.

But it wasn’t your typical outreach.

“You want to do a test for COVID-19?” asked Institute for Human Services outreach manager Justin Phillips of a homeless client.

“You don’t have to have insurance,” he said. “It’s free of charge.”

Those who agreed to be tested walked over to an SUV. It had been transformed into a pop-up clinic that provides on-the-spot testing.

The program launched three months ago and is already playing a critical role in identifying clusters of the coronavirus in some of Honolulu’s homeless camps.

“What we’ve seen is how rapidly COVID can spread,” Phillips said.

Since the start of the pandemic, he says he’s noticed more people on the street. He added, that outreach workers are also finding people living in tightly packed encampments -- hidden out of sight.

“I do worry about it (COVID-19),” said one homeless man named Richard.

He agreed to get tested, saying it was his first time. Richard admitted his lifestyle puts him at a higher risk for catching the virus.

“We’re all sucking on each other’s pipes,” he said.

After providing some basic information and a quick temperature check, it was time to be swabbed.

“You’re just going to tilt your head back a little,” said a Project Vision clinician administering the test.

The test was completed in a matter of seconds.

“That’s it,” said Richard. “Thank you. That wasn’t so bad.”

A total of eight people were tested at the Moiliili camp, including two children.

“Roughly, we get a handful of people at each encampment to come out and test,” said Phillips. “Today was more.”

As soon as the test results are in, the team will return to the camp and let participants know if they’re positive or negative.

“We won’t get results for 48 to 72 hours,” Phillips told a woman as she signed up for a test.

Every person who tests positive for the virus is offered a room at one of the city’s quarantine facilities.

But not everyone accepts.

“Even if they’re going to isolate in their tent. We want to make sure they have some kind of access to food. Resources like clean clothing. Clean showers,” said Phillips.

Twenty-four hours after the testing took place, HNN was notified that one person did test positive for the coronavirus. That individual was asymptomatic and at the time had no interest in leaving the street.

More testing at the camp is currently underway in an effort to identify any new cases.

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