US: Vulnerable communities in urgent need of protection from the coronavirus

A visitor to the shower trailer waits for a stall to become available.
United States 2020 © Spencer Platt
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Greater focus on underserved communities in the United States is urgently needed to ensure that all people can protect themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vulnerable groups, such as people who are currently homeless or housing insecure, lack necessary resources to remain safe and healthy amidst an epidemic. Many don’t have the option to shelter in place and lack access to basic hygiene facilities. The COVID-19 epidemic in the US puts them at even greater peril.

“In most states, authorities are instructing people to protect themselves from COVID-19 by staying home, avoiding crowds, and washing their hands often,” said Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the US. “This isn’t possible for the millions of people in the US who are housing insecure. Where are they supposed to shower or wash their hands when public restrooms and facilities have closed? For people living in shelters or in communal housing, how are they supposed to self-isolate?”

West

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Since the start of the outbreak, MSF has received hundreds of inquiries from civil society organizations, local governments, and health care providers serving affected communities across the US seeking guidance on keeping staff and clients safe.

“In the US, state governments have taken the lead in the pandemic response, and there are vast disparities in access to services from one location to another,” said Jean Stowell, head of MSF’s COVID-19 team in the US. “Based on our own experience responding to infectious disease outbreaks around the world, MSF is helping organizations and health care providers in the US adapt and apply public health guidance according to the needs and resources available in their particular communities.”

In New York City, the current epicenter of the global pandemic, over 50,000 people sleep in homeless shelters each night. MSF is partnering with local organizations to improve infection prevention and control (IPC) measures in facilities serving people who are homeless or housing insecure. MSF has donated over 80 handwashing stations to places like soup kitchens and supportive housing facilities. A team is distributing 1,000 mobile phones to vulnerable New Yorkers who lack the essential technology needed to contact emergency and support services, including telemedicine providers. In addition, MSF has opened a temporary shower trailer in Manhattan, offering free showers to people who currently lack access to such facilities.

MSF has sent teams to assess local needs in several other areas where communities lack equitable access to COVID-19 response services, including in Puerto Rico, Florida, and among Native American communities in the southwest.