FAQ: MSF’s COVID-19 response in the United States

Water and sanitation manager Renée Corbett speaks to a visitor at MSF's shower trailer in Manhattan. The MSF facility offers free warm showers to the homeless and other people who currently lack access to hygiene facilities.
United States 2020 © Spencer Platt
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What is Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doing to address the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States?

In key areas around the US, MSF is working with local authorities and partner organizations that serve vulnerable people who are normally excluded from health care, such as migrants and the homeless, and communities that are especially likely to be left behind during a health emergency. You can read more about what we are currently doing in our most recent operational update.

Why has MSF decided to launch operations in the US?

This pandemic—and the stress it has put on some of the world’s strongest health systems—is unprecedented. We have seen hospitals overrun with critical patients in parts of the US and Europe. In the US, there are significant health inequities and a high number of people who suffer from co-morbidities that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19. There is a clear need for additional support for the COVID-19 response, especially among vulnerable communities with limited access to health care, shelter, or basic sanitation.

Where is MSF currently working in the US?

MSF first launched our COVID-19 response by partnering with organizations helping the homeless and housing insecure in New York City, which is currently the epicenter of the global pandemic and is also home to our US office. MSF has expanded our COVID-19 response to include teams on the ground in Florida, Puerto Rico, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. We also are providing remote support—such as advising on infection prevention and control and hospital triage set-up and providing informational materials on COVID-19 best practices—to organizations helping vulnerable groups in various other geographic areas of the US.

There are so many dire needs in New York City related to COVID-19. Why has MSF chosen to focus on working with the homeless and housing insecure?

Public health officials are telling people to socially distance themselves and to practice good handwashing hygiene, but that’s not always possible for thousands of people in New York City who live on the streets, in homeless shelters, or in supportive housing. New York City’s homeless population depends on public restrooms and other services and facilities that have closed since the start of the outbreak. People in shelters and supportive housing often share common living spaces and facilities, live in crowded conditions, and depend on emergency departments or public clinics for health care.

We recognize that COVID-19 transmission precautions are especially challenging for certain communities in New York City, but everyone, no matter where they live, should have the information and tools they need to try to protect themselves from this virus. The goal is to keep people healthy and prevent them from having to go to hospitals, which are already seeing an influx of COVID-19 patients.  

I am a health care professional. How can I help?

We are not currently recruiting for our COVID-19 operations in the US, but there is a dire need for health care professionals to work with and support their local health systems. We encourage health care workers currently in the US to be in touch with their local hospitals and authorities to help support local staffing needs.

Why isn’t MSF treating patients with COVID-19 in the US?

Many considerations have gone into designing our COVID-19 activities in the US, including state regulations and our own limitations regarding critical supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). One thing we have learned from our decades of experience responding to health emergencies around the world is that everyone has a role to play in slowing the spread of a virus. We work in more than 70 countries, most of which have limited health care capacity, especially when it comes to hospitalization. We have seen that some of the most critical work in an outbreak response happens outside hospitals, educating people, giving them the tools to protect themselves, and trying to prevent new infections as much as possible.

I work for an organization that serves the homeless, migrants, or other vulnerable groups. Can MSF help us?

We would be happy to share the resources and information we have available on COVID-19. Please contact us with more specific information about your organization and your needs and our team will do its best to help.