Advocates had feared a COVID surge among Boise’s homeless. It’s already started

·4 min read

Jodi Peterson-Stigers rarely sleeps nowadays.

The executive director of Interfaith Sanctuary, one of Boise’s largest homeless organizations, spends much of her time trying to keep the hundreds of people her organization serves safe and sheltered during a chaotic time.

And that was before 10 unhoused people, all of whom had tested positive for COVID-19, sought a place to quarantine in one night.

Interfaith Sanctuary Shelter Director Jordan Pereira collects a COVID test from a resident on Wednesday. The homeless crisis center has moved to daily mass testing after a surge of positive COVID cases among residents.
Interfaith Sanctuary Shelter Director Jordan Pereira collects a COVID test from a resident on Wednesday. The homeless crisis center has moved to daily mass testing after a surge of positive COVID cases among residents.

“I’ve reached a point where this is a little too scary for me,” Peterson-Stigers said. “I don’t think any of us are trained for this part of the job, this medical piece that’s so significant now.”

COVID-19 patients have been flooding Treasure Valley hospitals, with the state announcing Thursday that hospitals statewide would begin to ration care as available capacity reaches its limits.

Now, that’s starting to include unhoused people in Boise, more of whom are getting sick as the long-expected surge takes hold, potentially adding to the strain already facing local health care providers.

“Anytime we have folks that might be in a communal setting or out in the community, where they may not have immediate access to resources, is definitely a concern,” said Rebecca Lemmons, director of community health and well-being at Saint Alphonsus Health System.

‘A lot of pressure’

Those at Interfaith began to get concerned as the number of local cases climbed in recent weeks. They had rented hotel rooms early in the pandemic to quarantine those with COVID but stopped when cases declined in the spring.

Now, they’ve rented 42 rooms in a Boise hotel in preparation for the latest surge. Interfaith asked that the hotel not be named to prevent a run on available rooms.

As of Tuesday, seven people were quarantined in the hotel rooms. Then 10 more people testing positive for COVID arrived, some at the shelter, seeking a place to quarantine. Peterson-Stigers said some arrived with a positive test in hand.

The shelter immediately adopted new protocols after the surge. Nobody displaying symptoms will be allowed inside. A symptomatic person will instead have to wait inside a quarantine room at the hotel until and the person obtains a negative test result.

The virus is clearly spreading throughout the community, Peterson-Stigers said, but the goal will be to protect the 140 people who stay in the shelter every night. It’s not the first outbreak in the community, but the low number of available hospital beds has made the situation more dire.

“There’s just a lot of pressure that I don’t know we felt at a certain point in the pandemic last year,” Peterson-Stigers said.

Part of the problem for advocates is not knowing how many unhoused people still need to be vaccinated. Hospitals don’t mark someone’s housing status while under care, so data can often be hard to collect, Lemmons said.

“We’re trying to start to provide that information, but we don’t collect that as a data point specifically,” she said.

Peterson-Stigers said many residents have been eager to get the vaccine since they’ve been made available. Residents are usually given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot, she said.

Around the shelter, though, the fear is palpable. Interfaith had its first COVID fatality of the pandemic in August: Debi Davis, who got sick the same day she was scheduled to get the vaccine.

“She could make people just smile,” said Sherri, a resident who declined to give her last name. “I was only here for four weeks, but she took me under her wing, just like that.”

Interfaith Sanctuary resident Sherri paints an image of an angel on a rock as part of a memorial project for a fellow resident at the homeless shelter who was unvaccinated and died from COVID-19.
Interfaith Sanctuary resident Sherri paints an image of an angel on a rock as part of a memorial project for a fellow resident at the homeless shelter who was unvaccinated and died from COVID-19.

Davis had been on the fence about getting vaccinated before contracting COVID. Her death persuaded many others in the shelter to finally get the jab, Program Manager Nicki Vogel said.

Others still at risk

But even for those who are vaccinated, the risk of contracting the virus can be downright terrifying. Sherri said she’s avoided going to a hospital for multiple cardiac episodes because of the number of COVID patients they’re treating.

“I got the COVID, then I got vaccinated, but I’m still scared to death to get it,” she said. “I feel safer (in the shelter) than walking into a hospital.”

And there’s the lingering feeling that this week’s surge is just the tip of the iceberg. Peterson-Stigers said hospital officials have warned of a possible surge in October, worsening an all-time crisis for Idaho health care.

She said she’s considering seeing a counselor, as the stress from the impact to the community has become almost too much to bear.

“I just don’t want us to lose anyone else — I just don’t,” she said.

As of Thursday morning, she was waiting on the results of about 100 tests taken the previous day. Those results could determine just how overwhelmed their system could become in the future.

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