Coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit our community quickly. On Monday the first known case was reported in our community, and by this morning the number of cases in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish had already reached 26; the numbers are expected to continue to climb rapidly next week. While COVID-19 is not considered dangerous to people under 60 who are in good health (in fact, many people may be carriers of the virus who will never show any symptoms at all), it can result in very serious illness for people who are at higher risk because they are over 60 or have chronic health conditions. It is much more easily transmittable than the flu. Our client population is particularly vulnerable, both because they often have chronic health conditions and because they often are living in conditions in which this virus would be easily transmitted. This includes crowded living conditions that lack access to handwashing facilities or basic hygiene to protect themselves from transmission.
UNITY wants to provide homeless service providers in the Homeless Continuum of Care (CoC) guidance about how to continue to provide services during the pandemic while also helping to reduce spread of infection among your staff and clients.
1 Please do your very best to maintain services to your clients as per your contracts. This is a very stressful period for everyone, especially our clients. PSH and Rapid Re-Housing clients need your support now more than ever in order to stay stably housed, stay mentally and physically healthy, and get medical treatment if needed. People who are currently homeless need housing more than ever. However, in order to reduce spread of the virus to vulnerable clients or to your staff, it may be advisable to maintain contact with PSH and Rapid Re-Housing clients primarily over the phone if the clients have phones and do not require in-person communication, and to maintain physical space when communicating in person with clients so as to avoid transmission. You should also make plans for continuity of services in the event a staff member becomes ill or needs to self-quarantine.
3 It is important to realize that perhaps the most important thing that can be done to protect our clients (as well as your staff and everyone else in the community) from infection is to slow the spread of the virus in the wider community through what is known as “social distancing.” On an individual level, that means do everything you can to reduce the number of people you come in direct contact with, and your staff comes in contact with, during the pandemic. Avoid crowds. Realize that you may be a carrier of the virus even though you do not have any symptoms, and that anyone you come in contact with may be a carrier. Even if you are not worried about getting the virus in terms of the impact on yourself, you need to be vigilant about inadvertently passing it on to others in the community who could get very sick or even die from it. To the extent possible, we recommend that programs do not require staff to come into the office unless it is essential to serving clients, so as to avoid unnecessary mingling and spreading of disease. Wherever possible, we recommend that staff be allowed to use their homes as offices, as is generally recommended by public health officials.
4 Protect your staff, as they are our CoC’s most precious resource. All staff members should be assured of sufficient paid sick leave to get them through the pandemic. That not only protects them, but protects clients and other staff from being infected. Allow staff members flexibility to cope with childcare issues caused by the closure of the schools. Staff members should be allowed to use their home as their office if feasible. Staff members who are considered to be at high risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract coronavirus (because they are over 60 or have chronic disease like asthma and lung conditions, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, weakened immune systems or are pregnant), or who live with household members with these vulnerabilities, should be allowed to work from home if at all possible. You might consider asking other staff without those vulnerabilities to take over certain duties that require being out in the field, in the office or in a shelter or other facility. Protective equipment such as gloves, hand sanitizers and masks may be appropriate for staff. We understand these policies may entail making sure staff have the resources to work from home through a cell phone, laptop computer, or other resources, or the purchase of protective equipment. You may also need to ensure staff have remote access to computer files and databases. Contact UNITY Contracts Manager if you would like to request a budget revision to include these costs.
5 Please make redundancy plans for payroll, financial management, and approval functions should key staff become ill for some period during the pandemic. Make sure that multiple staff know how to do and are authorized to do the key functions should some become temporarily incapacitated.
Finally, in order to help slow the spread of coronavirus in the community, most UNITY staff will be primarily working from home beginning Monday, March 16. All CoC meetings will be conducted by conference calls and/or video conferencing, including weekly navigator meetings, the March SPPA meeting, and other CoC meetings. The best way to reach UNITY staff is by email or cell phone; in addition, we will be checking the voicemail system throughout the day and returning calls. We may also hold trainings to keep the CoC staff informed and engaged during this time. We are also participating in local and state emergency efforts to respond to this emergency.
Please let us know of any concerns or problems you have. If you need to reach us, Martha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504)952-3348 (cell) or (504)821-4496 ext 107 (office). Valerie Coffin can be reached at email@example.com or (504)233-8757 (google voice) or (504)821-4496 x112 (office).
Above all, please know how deeply we care about you and how much we appreciate all you do for the homeless. Our community has gotten through many trying times, and this one will be no different. We look forward to our very first in-person CoC meeting after all this is over!