Joe Brown, who lives in a thicket of trees sandwiched between Interstate 5 and Harborview Medical Center, said Monday afternoon that he had not heard much about the novel coronavirus that has killed six people in Washington state and is expected to spread.

Brown, 36, who’s been sleeping on a platform built from pallets and cardboard boxes, said outreach workers have come to distribute hand sanitizer on the weekends. But regular access to hot water and soap for hand-washing, one of the main actions health officials say a person can take in order to prevent contracting the illness, is another story.

“Hospitals don’t even let you use the bathroom,” Brown said. “Starbucks once in a while will let you. But a lot of places around here don’t like homeless people.”

King County, which has seen the highest number of deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has the third-highest homeless population in the country. More than 5,000 people were counted as living unsheltered in a one-night count of homelessness within the county last year, including more than 1,200 living in tents or unsanctioned encampments. This week, officials are scrambling to figure out how to contain the illness if it spreads to people in shelters or living outside.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

While most cases of the illness have been characterized as mild, people with chronic health conditions, older people, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for more serious illness, health officials have said. Many people who are homeless also have chronic health conditions; according to the 2019 one-night count and survey, that included 27% of respondents.

As one emergency measure, King County Executive Dow Constantine said at a Monday news conference that the county would set up modular units to isolate patients who do not have a home address. The county had already bought 14 of these units, once used to house Texas oil workers, for its homelessness response.

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In addition to the modular units, King County previously contracted with a firm in Marysville to build dormitory-style buildings to house 72 formerly unsheltered people. These buildings are now being included in the county’s quarantine plan for unhoused people, said Sherry Hamilton, communications director for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.

The county is also buying a motel for patient isolation, Constantine said, though it’s not intended for homeless patients specifically.

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“Many of us can shelter in place, we can go home, we can even work remotely,” said Constantine. “That is not an option for people who are unhoused.” 

With shelters in King County close to full already, Seattle officials said Monday afternoon that the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) was working closely with King County’s Department of Community and Human Services to potentially open more emergency shelters or expand tiny house villages. The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staff charged with removing encampments and getting people into shelter, said it was also sharing hygiene guidelines from public health officials and would distribute hygiene kits to the city’s homeless population.

Seattle set aside $1.3 million in December to set up mobile bathrooms for people living outside to use, but those have not yet been deployed.

In a statement, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda urged Seattleites to refrain from fear-mongering about coronavirus and the city’s homeless population.

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“Seattle’s prevention, treatment, and response to our homeless residents should be no different than that of any other population,” Mosqueda said. “The difference stems from our failure to guarantee quality healthcare and proper hygiene and hand-washing stations to all. Also, due to our inability to offer affordable housing or shelter to all, many homeless folks lack the ability to isolate themselves.”

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In Snohomish County, which has reported four coronavirus cases including one death, officials say they don’t have any specific plans yet for reaching people living outside.

Messaging and planning thus far “has focused on the whole community,” said Scott North, public information officer for Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

King County’s homelessness service providers, meanwhile, are working to keep shelters clean, and trying to develop plans if a shelter resident starts showing symptoms of the infection.

“We’re going to need to be prepared to give care to a lot of people in this community, including people who don’t have the things the rest of us take for granted,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Namely, four walls, a door, a bed.”

The city and county held conference calls with shelter providers over the weekend, many of whom wanted more information, Eisinger said.

“It’s quite remarkable how much uncertainty there is – and it’s not uncertainty because people are doing this wrong – it’s uncertainty because we don’t have full information,” Eisinger said.

Mary’s Place, which operates family and women’s shelters in King County, is increasing the number of wipe-downs and requiring everyone who enters their shelters to wash their hands, according to a spokesperson.

At the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which shelters many older people who often have chronic health issues, executive director Daniel Malone sent an email to the entire staff Saturday saying their shelters were stocked on cleaning supplies and gloves, and to focus on disinfecting all surfaces.

“People not feeling well should stay home so as to minimize spreading to others whatever you may have,” Malone wrote in the email. “If a client is showing symptoms of infection, proceed as you normally would to help the client get medical attention.”

But by Monday afternoon, information about how to prepare for the spread of the infection had not yet reached the encampment by Harborview. Purple bags of what appeared to be medical waste lay strewn next to a chain link fence separating tents from the highway. In one torn bag, petri dishes were clearly visible.

“We were like, ‘nobody touch that,'” said “Bee” Vela, 29. He hadn’t spoken to city or county workers about coronavirus, he said, and was worried about what the infection might mean for him and his wife living outside.

“Being in a tent for so long, day after day, night after night, it wears you down,” he said.

Seattle Times Project Homeless engagement editor Anna Patrick contributed to this report.

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