COVID-19 surging in metro Phoenix homeless population amid severe medical staffing shortage – The Arizona Republic

Just as homeless service providers thought the COVID-19 pandemic was winding down in metro Phoenix, cases began skyrocketing again.

Now, the hotel used for isolation and COVID-19 treatment for people experiencing homelessness is at max capacity and understaffed.

COVID-19 can be particularly dangerous for people experiencing homelessness because they often have preexisting medical conditions or substance abuse disorders.

Circle the City spokesperson Marty Hames said her organization, the health care provider for people experiencing homelessness, is serving the surge of patients but has a critical need for more medical staff.

“Not only are we dealing with this higher demand on behalf of our patients, we’re also dealing with a shortage of employees,” she said.

Circle the City is looking to hire more than 50 security guards, nurses, physician’s assistants, phlebotomists and other medical staff to keep up with the growing need.

Cases surging

Since May 2020, Circle the City has been operating a hotel for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms and are awaiting test results.

There are about 90 rooms at the Phoenix Inn and throughout the pandemic, it’s rarely reached full capacity — but it has now.

Hames said Circle the City was getting ready to shut down its operation at the Phoenix Inn earlier this summer when cases were low and few people were coming to the organization’s clinic with symptoms.

Circle the City started cutting back on staffing at the Phoenix Inn when the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus began spreading throughout Maricopa County.

“In the last month or so, our numbers started to skyrocket,” Hames said.

For the first time, Circle the City has seen COVID-19 outbreaks at its medical respite centers. Hames said there have been a number of other outbreaks at shelters across metro Phoenix.

She said it’s predominately unvaccinated people coming down with COVID-19, but there have been some breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.

Circle the City, like other health care providers, has seen employees leave after more than a year of working in a pandemic because of burnout and compassion fatigue. The shortage has put a strain on remaining employees, Hames said.

“If somebody calls out sick, we’re severely impacted by that,” she said.

Circle the City is offering signing bonuses and a 401(k) match for all positions to try to entice people to join its team.

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A push for more vaccines

Circle the City has administered about 4,200 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to people experiencing homelessness and providers.

Hames said the organization still is pushing to get more people vaccinated by hosting events at the Human Services Campus and offering them to patients at its clinic.

“We’ve made progress,” Hames said. “But it’s just like in the general population: There are people who do not want to get the vaccine.”

Michael Harris said he initially didn’t want to get the vaccine. But after he was diagnosed with COVID-19, he changed his mind.

He spent two full weeks unable to get out of bed, sick with body aches, a fever and vomiting, he said.

“I don’t want it again, I can tell you that. It is not fun, at all,” Harris said.

Harris lost his housing while he had COVID-19 and ended up at St. Joseph’s Hospital to treat the virus and a foot infection. He’s now recovering at Circle the City and got his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Sept. 1.

Harris said he initially was hesitant about the vaccine because he heard stories of people getting the virus even after they were vaccinated.

After he’s discharged from Circle the City, he plans to stay with a friend who had a recent heart transplant, so he decided to get vaccinated to make sure he doesn’t get the virus again or spread it to his friend.

Hames said Circle the City clinicians are meeting with people one-on-one to try to answer questions and address concerns about the vaccine.

People experiencing homelessness who are interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine can contact Circle the City directly at 623-900-2203 or visit the downtown Family Health Clinic at 220 S. 12th Ave.

People interested in applying at Circle the City can browse open positions on the organization’s website or email [email protected].

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.

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