Lyle Wilcowski is wheelchair bound, frequently coughs and breathes with the help of a tube in his throat. He’s also homeless.
Wilcowski, 57, has been in isolation at the Union Gospel Mission for the past week in effort to avoid exposure to COVID-19.
It’s no secret that those experiencing long-term homelessness are more vulnerable to the spread of illness. They have less access to health care and often have compromised immune systems due to chronic underlying health issues and malnutrition.
“Many smoke at a higher rate, have been living in a way that’s challenging their system and are more likely to get and die from it,” said Mike Johnson, the mission’s executive director.
As of Friday, there were no known cases of COVID-19 at the mission, where 160 homeless people — including some families — are being housed.
But Johnson, as well as other area service providers, are making changes in preparation for arrival of the coronavirus. At the mission, some facilities have been closed, people are being fed in shifts and some have been placed in isolation. All this is being done with fewer helping hands, as many volunteers have been instructed to stay home.
Staff who are in frequent contact with others wear masks.
“That’s important because my sense is it’s a matter of when — not if — that we’ll start having to manage a sick ward,” Johnson said.
Wilcowski’s physical ailments stem from an accident more than two years ago. He was struck by a semitruck while walking across an Interstate 82 off-ramp in north Yakima. He suffered a broken neck, pelvis and several other broken bones and has respiratory problems as a result.
He’s sharing a room with two other men also in isolation.
“Nobody’s sick — it’s just for our protection,” said Dean Duff, 66, one of the men sharing the room.
“I’m part of the high-risk group, over 60, heart disease,” he said.
The mission is housed in a former hotel with separate living spaces, which allows for isolation.
“We got a TV, so we get to watch old Westerns and ‘Criminal Minds,’” Duff said, pointing to the TV as a commercial aired.
Camp Hope, a homeless encampment in south Yakima behind the former Kmart, lacks those opportunities. There, several people live in large military tents.
There is some social distancing between beds in the tents. There’s an 8-foot-wide walkway down the center of the tents with rows of beds on either side. Beds are about 5 feet apart.
The camp has yet to experience anyone with the new coronavirus, but it’s working with the mission on a plan if quarantine is needed.
One option may be to move families at the camp to the mission and use those tents as isolation and quarantine stations, camp director Mike Kay said.
“We have a lot of providers who are working together and not necessarily relying on the city or county to come up with a solution,” he said.
Tables are spread out in the mission dining hall. Adjacent is the main lobby, where more dining tables have been placed.
Families and others in specific programs offered by the mission eat in the lobby separate from the rest of the mission’s population to provide them distance.
The mission’s general population and unsheltered homeless people who come in off the streets eat later in the dining hall, entering in shifts.
Only 50 people are allowed in the dining hall at a time, and everyone is required to wash with hand sanitizer as they enter.
“It’s making us have to rethink and redesign the way we provide services,” Johnson said. “Almost nothing is untouched.”
At Camp Hope, picnic tables have been removed from the dining tent and spaced out across the camp so people aren’t eating shoulder-to-shoulder. The warm weather has helped, Kay said.
“It’s a perfect environment for that,” he said.
At the Rhonda D. Hauff Resource Center in downtown Yakima, which houses and serves the homeless, people are screened before they come in. The center has separate living quarters, but only 10 people at a time are allowed in its common area where there’s a television.
The center is operated by Yakima Neighborhood Health, which provides medical services including respite care, in addition to homeless services.
Neighborhood Health has 10 respite care units, with seven filled. However, stays aren’t usually long and those units could be used for a homeless person with COVID-19, said Rhonda Hauff, deputy CEO of Neighborhood Health.
“We are hoping to expand our services in respite care,” she said. “We don’t want anyone infected in one of the shelters because that’s too communal. Respite can keep them secluded and provide medical care.”
Neighborhood Health and the mission had to temporarily shut down their dental clinics per Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide order barring elective medical procedures. Only dental emergencies are being treated at this time.
Neighborhood Health and the mission are handling medical patients differently in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Both agencies are screening people while they wait in their cars, and neighborhood health is providing drive-thru testing when warranted, Hauff said.
At the mission, only a few are allowed into the clinic at a time and they have to use hand sanitizer when coming inside, said Nicola Bocek, a medical doctor who volunteers at the clinic.
“We used to have a full waiting room with people sitting side-by-side,” she said. “Now we have changed to space people out — 6 feet apart. People with respiratory illness are screened in their cars before stepping foot in the clinic.”
Staff has become more diligent about cleaning rooms, and they wear masks and wash their hands more frequently, she said.
“My hands are going to fall off,” Bocek said jokingly.
The clinic also is helping patients more by phone, reviewing lab reports and treatment plans, she said. “That’s cut down on the number of patients who actually come into the clinic.”
Neighborhood Health operated nine sites throughout the county, mostly providing primary care.
As of Friday, 35 clients had been tested for the new coronavirus without any positive results, she said.
“At the resource center, clinics, housing projects, we are being very diligent,” Hauff said. “We are screening people every day, we are taking temperatures every day, trying to stay ahead of it.”
The mission relies heavily on volunteers, most retired in their 60s and older. It has instructed many of those volunteers to stay home for their own protection.
Normally, the mission operates with about 40 volunteers a day. Now there are fewer than 10.
It closed one of its thrift stores and Madison House, its youth center that provided meals and services.
Its medical and dental clinics had more than 150 volunteers, many of them students from Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences. The school has suspended the program.
But not all volunteers are staying away.
Carol Wagar, 62, helps in the office and kitchen. She’s a former mission board member and has volunteered four years.
“I don’t feel panicked,” she said. “I guess I had this thought this morning: ‘God, where do you want me to be?’ The mission. There’s a great need.”
She said she doesn’t feel as if she’s taking an unacceptable risk showing up.
“I’m in excellent health and I think that’s a big part of it,” she said. “I just think it’s a sense of purpose.”
Bocek, 70, shares a similar sentiment.
She says everyone who enters the medical field is aware of such risks.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to continue to practice,” she said. “It’s a really positive place to work. It’s a lot of fun.”
But most important is treating an underserved population, she said.
The clinic not only serves those at the mission, but also people who can’t afford health insurance or cannot obtain state medical assistance. Many are field workers, she said.
“These people help our Valley growers harvest our food, keep food on the table,” she said.