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There is no question that adapting to the changes brought by COVID-19 has been challenging for nearly every one of Pittsburgh Mercy’s programs, with demands, at times, seemingly overwhelming as we learn to deal with a “new normal.”
Those challenges are nowhere more apparent than when serving those experiencing homelessness in Pittsburgh. The team of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net (OSN) has continued to support the county’s homeless population with a number of added services brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The first week or so was hard,” says Dr. Jim Withers, OSN founder and medical director. “We were used to hugging people.”
At the start of the shutdown in March, OSN was chosen by the City of Pittsburgh to be the lead agency for going on the street and into the camps to care for the city’s homeless population. That role continued until the state entered the “green” phase of reopening.
“It put more responsibility on us,” Withers says.
OSN’s team helped with the delivery and installation of donated portable toilets, sanitation stations (sinks), and water buffalos at a number of homeless encampments by March 24. Having the proper sanitary facilities helped the team promote safe hygiene habits to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
From the beginning of the shutdown, the OSN team has been taking testing to where the people they serve live, whether a campsite on a hillside or under a bridge. The tests are delivered to Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center on the South Side, which is among the 19 community health clinics in the county offering free COVID-19 testing.
The news has been filled with scenes of doctors and nurses clad in Personal Protective Equipment inside sterile hospitals. The OSN street medicine team also wears full gear — gowns, N95 masks, and gloves — meeting people where they are to provide COVID-19 testing for those who are symptomatic.
Dr. Withers says those who call the street their home adapted to the COVID-19 restrictions, wearing donated masks distributed by OSN’s team to use when they shop. And they took social distancing seriously.
“It’s interesting,” he continues. “We were in a camp and everyone was a good six feet apart.”
For those experiencing homelessness, COVID-19 meant that places where they’d find a meal weren’t open and the donations they relied on from the general public disappeared.
To fill the need, our Intervention Services colleagues constructed “ready-to-eat” boxes for delivery to persons served by our homeless programs, with considerations such as making sure a can opener wasn’t needed to open the food for those living outdoors.
OSN’s medical staff also began offering telehealth visits to people served by Bethlehem Haven, Light of Life Mission, and other homeless services providers.
As Allegheny County’s total cases top 9,500 this week and the total death toll creeps closer to 300, OSN will continue to promote the safety precautions — handwashing, social distancing, and wearing masks (face coverings) — among the area’s homeless population, and provide needed outreach and street medicine to Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable population.
“I’ve heard much gratitude from those we serve for not having been abandoned,” Withers says.