Investigating and responding to COVID-19 cases at homeless service provider sites

Considerations for state and local health departments

Updated June 23, 2020

Revisions were made on June 19, 2020 to reflect the following:

  • Additional information on testing staff and clients for COVID-19
  • Addition of location-based contact tracing description
  • Removal of the section on decision-making based on community transmission level and health department capacity
  • Updates to improve the clarity of this guidance

Purpose: Homeless service provider sites can present unique challenges for COVID-19 case investigation and public health action. Because these sites can be crowded settings, the virus may spread easily among clients, staff, and volunteers. Additionally, clients at homeless service provider sites are often older adults or have underlying medical conditions, increasing their likelihood of severe illness from COVID-19. To help homeless service providers prevent the spread of COVID-19, review the CDC guidance specific to homeless service providers and related to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The following guidance outlines public health actions to take when a client with COVID-19 is identified.

Homeless service provider sites have many different designs and capacities. Some may have individual apartments or rooms, while others use shared sleeping areas. Some have medical staff on site, while others do not. The investigation, support needed, and public health actions to be taken will depend on the setting and the local context of the outbreak. Gather information from the homeless service site and consider the following options when responding to cases or clusters of COVID-19 in homeless service provider sites.

Communicate with the facility

  • Alert the facility as soon as a COVID-19 in client or staff member has been identified.
  • Communicate the goal of working together with the homeless service provider to protect clients and staff.
  • Establish regular communication and facilitate data sharing between the homeless service site, health department, and healthcare facilities.

 Isolate persons with confirmed COVID-19

  • Per guidance for homeless service providers, ensure that the homeless service site has capacity to isolate clients with positive results who are not hospitalized, or facilitate safe transportation of those with positive test results to a designated isolation area.
  • Ensure that transportation to off-site isolation areas limits exposure to the driver and the public.
  • Ensure appropriate accommodation for families if parents or children require isolation.
  • Advise staff with COVID-19 how to isolate at home.
  • Clients who have tested positive should be provided cloth face coverings to wear (unless contraindicated) whenever they leave their rooms or their designated areas.

 Encourage enhanced infection prevention and control

  • Provide the facility with guidance on cleaning and disinfection. The facility does not need to close to complete this cleaning and disinfection.
  • Recommend that all clients and staff wear cloth face coverings if able to prevent spread of the virus from people who do not know that they are infected. Provide education about the potential for contact transmission from touching cloth face coverings, how to appropriately remove cloth face coverings, how to launder cloth face coverings, and when cloth face coverings need to be replaced.
  • Conduct a site assessment to evaluate whether the facility is aligned with public health guidance for homeless service provider sites. Help identify changes to the current layout, operations, necessary supplies. Check:
  • Develop a plan to support infection prevention and control activities after the site assessment is complete.
  • Consider additional recommendations to maintain physical distancing between all clients and staff and decrease contamination in the context of COVID-19 transmission.
    • If possible, maintain social distancing (6 feet or more) in communal areas
    • Assign beds/mats and linens to reduce sharing
    • Encourage the use of non-contact methods of greeting
    • Stagger food services to reduce crowding during meals
    • Allow food to be delivered to clients or for clients to take food away.
  • If the facility is too crowded, help identify methods to reduce crowding. However, be sure to maintain potentially exposed individuals as a cohort. Collaborate with local officials to establish an additional homeless service site.

Test clients and staff

  • Facility-wide testing of asymptomatic individuals with recent known or potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2 is recommended for certain settings, like homeless shelters or encampments, where a case of COVID-19 has been identified.
    • Work with partners to offer diagnostic testing as soon as possible to all clients and staff who were at the site during the time period from 48 hours before symptom onset of the person diagnosed with COVID-19 until they were isolated.
    • It may not be possible to provide testing to every individual who might have been exposed, but the intent is to broadly offer testing to anyone who might have been exposed.
  • Repeat testing of all previously negative or untested clients and staff (e.g., once a week) is recommended until the testing identifies no new cases of COVID-19 over at least 14 days since the most recent positive result.
  • Follow-up testing is recommended for anyone who was not tested or tested negative if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 at any time.
  • Protect health department and healthcare staff collecting specimens using CDC guidance for specimen collection.
  • Ensure that individuals who have tested positive receive appropriate medical care, and use CDC guidance to determine when to end isolation.
  • Follow-up can be difficult among people experiencing homelessness. To facilitate location-based contact tracing (see below), consider interviewing all clients at the time of testing to identify common locations the person visited starting from 48 hours before their symptoms began (or before the date their specimen was collected, if they did not have symptoms).

Contact tracing

  • Case investigation and contact tracing are fundamental activities that involve working with a patient (symptomatic or asymptomatic) who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease to identify and provide support to others who may have been infected through exposure to the patient. However, in homeless service sites, crowding, mixing of clients and staff, difficulty ascertaining contacts, client mobility, and other constraints can limit the effectiveness of traditional person-based contact tracing.
  • Location-based contact tracing involves identifying sites visited by persons with confirmed COVID-19 during the time they were considered infectious, which can help identify additional facilities that might need investigation and testing. To conduct location-based contact tracing:
    • Communicate the purpose of your interview clearly so that clients and staff will understand that the goal is to protect friends, family, and community members from future potential COVID-19 infections
    • Interview persons with COVID-19 who are experiencing homelessness about locations where they have been, starting 48 hours before their symptoms began (or before the date their specimen was collected, if they did not have symptoms). Locations that are likely to have more people in close contact for extended periods of time may warrant additional follow-up.
    • Work with homeless service providers to use Homeless Management Information Systemsexternal icon (HMIS) and other data collection systems to identify where the person with confirmed COVID-19 checked-in during the time they were infectious.
    • If staff members have been exposed or have tested positive, identify whether they worked at other homeless service provider sites or elsewhere (e.g., encampments) during the time they were infectious.
    • For other sites that have been identified in location-based contact-tracing, conduct investigation and facility-wide testing as resources allow.
  • When possible, ask persons with confirmed COVID-19 if they have a partner, family members, or other friends with whom they spend a lot of time to ensure “closest” contacts have access to medical care and testing.
  • As feasible, use bed maps, social groups, and job involvement to identify other contacts.

Limit movement

  • It may be necessary to limit movement in and out of the facility while cases are being identified to decrease the possibility of spreading the virus. Define a cohort of those exposed who require movement limitations. This may be the entire facility.
  • If possible, consider asking the facility to close to new admissions if new cases have been identified within the past 14 days.
  • Work with community partners to ensure those seeking shelter have alternate options.
  • For clients who use public transportation, encourage them to follow the CDC guidance on how to protect themselves when using transportation, travel during less busy times, limit touching their eyes, nose, or mouth, and wash their hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before using public transportation and as soon as they arrive at their destination.
  • If clients have individual rooms, recommend that they stay in their rooms as much as possible.
  • If clients need to be in public or shared spaces, recommend that homeless service providers require that clients wear disposable or cloth face coverings (excluding children under age 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance) and maintain 6 feet of distance from others.
  • Identify activities and services needed to help clients stay at the facility, such as activities to pass time, support for behavioral health, and treatment for substance use disorders, medical care, and other social services. 

Relocate clients at higher risk for severe illness to individual rooms

Encourage enhanced monitoring for illness

  • Ensure there is routine clinical care and a provider on call if clients develop symptoms or other medical issues arise.
  • Recommend twice-daily temperature and symptom checks for all staff and clients. A screening tool can be used for these symptom checks.

Staff support

Link to resources

  • Coordinate with the local emergency management structure to identify necessary resources, including isolation and quarantine sites, supplies, staff, and testing.
  • Engage community partners for support if there are supply issues related to food or other resources such as handwashing supplies, PPE, and other items necessary for infection prevention and control.
  • Identify ways to support bringing handwashing stations, showers, and laundry to the facility if these are not already available.
  • Post easily understandable graphics around the facility to help staff and clients identify the symptoms of COVID-19 and practice proper hand hygiene and other behaviors to prevent the virus’s spread.
  • Identify and address potential barriers related to language, culture, and disability associated with communicating COVID-19 information to workers, volunteers, and clients.