COVID-19 grants support homeless health

Kaiser Permanente donates $2 million to 14 Northern California organizations for COVID-19 testing and medical care. Pictured, Maggie McNair, RN, left, administers a COVID-19 test to Gustavo Medina as part of Roots Community Health Center’s street outreach program for the homeless.

For a long time last year, homeless clients of Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland avoided the high number of COVID-19 infections seen in the community at large.

Experts guessed that people who live outside by themselves were safer than the general population.

But then December came and the numbers suddenly shot up. The health center’s Street Team Outreach Medical Program pivoted to an all hands on deck COVID-19 testing mode to try and make a dent in surging numbers and save lives among the vulnerable segment.

Maggie McNair, RN, of Roots Community Health Center, sets up a COVID-19 testing station on the sidewalk in East Oakland near the organization's mobile health clinic bus.

Maggie McNair, RN, of Roots Community Health Center, sets up a COVID-19 testing station on the sidewalk in East Oakland near the organization’s mobile health clinic bus.

With $150,000 in Kaiser Permanente funding, the health center was able to add a fifth person to its street outreach program, said founder and CEO Noha Aboelata, MD.“This grant is filling a very important gap for us,” Dr. Aboelata said. “This is my life’s work in terms of being able to be on the ground responding to the needs and making an impact. We’ve really had to expand because the number of people living on the streets has expanded.”

The $150,000 grant is part of $2 million going to 14 homeless outreach organizations to prevent and test for COVID-19 in Northern California and $6.3 million that Kaiser Permanente made to 46 organizations nationwide. The grants are part of the organization’s larger strategy to address homelessness and increase affordable housing as a way of improving overall community health.

“One of our big priorities is to keep people alive until they get housing.”

Offering prevention outreach and COVID-19 testing in homeless populations presents a very different set of complications from those who are housed, Dr. Aboelata said, mostly because many do not have reliable phones. If a client tests positive at one of the sidewalk testing stations, the street team must return to the area with a county health department worker to find the client, present the news, and encourage the person to move into one of the state-funded isolation hotels. They also must find and test close contacts of the COVID-positive person.

“We had to get one of our vehicles specially outfitted so that when we take a person to one of the isolation hotels for COVID-positive homeless, the driver and the client are separated,” Dr. Aboelata said. “They get to bring one bag of belongings, and that can be challenging because people don’t want to leave their things behind.”

Danielle Williams, MD, is part of the five-person Roots COVID-19 outreach team that was offering testing recently on International Boulevard and 84th Avenue in East Oakland.

“One of our big priorities is to keep people alive until they get housing,” Dr. Williams said as she set up a pop-up tent on the sidewalk. “But I worry that since people are social distancing, they may not come to us for help or go to the hospital and a lot of their health issues will get worse.”

Her colleague helping out on the street, Maggie McNair, RN, said the work at Roots puts her right where she wants to be, on the street and helping.

“I’m from Oakland and it’s always been a passion of mine to give back to my community,” she said. “Roots has provided me the perfect opportunity to do just that.”

Dr. Aboelata said when Roots sets up on the sidewalk to do COVID-testing, they also give out hot meals, hygiene kits, and bottles of water. On this particular day, the meals were barbequed ribs.

“When you go into medicine and you’re taking care of one sick person after another, that gets challenging. But at Roots we’re able to take care of so much more,” Dr. Aboelata explained. “And that is rewarding.”


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