People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and Alameda Health System (AHS), in collaboration with the county, has been at the forefront of providing much-needed care and testing.

By Janet DeVor

As a collaborating partner for Alameda County’s Project Roomkey, Damon Francis, MD and medical director for the AHS Health Care for the Homeless Center was able to administer testing for both COVID-19 positive patients who need to continue to quarantine (Operation Comfort) and those patients not positive for COVID-19 but in high-risk settings (Operation Safer Ground).

“It’s not a small task to start a new testing service in a challenging and unpredictable setting. I’m grateful for the help and support I received from across the organization,” said Francis. “It was an amazing view of -AHS to get this kind of support on a very complex undertaking.”

Testing took place from April 16 and ran through May 4, 2020 at two hotel sites in Oakland. A total of 82 test were administered with 2 positives. Outbreak testing or testing in shelters and encampments will continue as needed. The Project Roomkey testing is currently being transitioned to the public health department. According to Francis, the team is developing the capacity to be in the rotation for outbreak testing which is a role they would share with multiple teams across the county who are already performing this kind of testing.

The Mobile Health team is also providing urgent care services at Project Roomkey sites. “Right now, our Mobile Health service is focusing on the high-risk patients who are located at Project Roomkey sites who continue to need significant support for chronic conditions,” said Francis. “There are projected to be hundreds of patients experiencing homelessness in rooms across the county as additional Roomkey sites open up and we are working with our local partners to figure out how to best serve them.”

Participating in this groundbreaking effort with Francis, Mobile Health Specialist Lafayette Bickham reflects, “When faced with the pandemic, the Mobile Clinic kept on rolling, just the way it was designed to do,” he said.  “Our mobile health experts met the call of duty and I’m proud to be part of the team that met this challenge when it was most needed.”

Caring for these marginalized patients is incredibly rewarding for Francis and his team.  “Hearing the patients’ stories and being able to provide an ear or a clinical solution; some relief in the moment with information or treatment; a prescription refill or a changed dressing; it really reinforces the mission for our team. It helps that at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve made a difference, you’ve been safe in your risk taking, and you got things done that others wouldn’t be willing to do.”