Grand Forks homeless shelter battles to keep H1N1 at bayGRAND FORKS, N.D. – Tom Cogsdell, 42, an off-and-on resident of the Northlands Rescue Mission in Grand Forks, has a bed in the fifth-floor men’s dormitory.
By: Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., INFORUM
GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Tom Cogsdell, 42, an off-and-on resident of the Northlands Rescue Mission in Grand Forks, has a bed in the fifth-floor men’s dormitory.
Influenza may live there, too.
“There are 33 beds and three cots in that one room,” Cogsdell said. “You hear the coughing all night.”
Homeless shelters – like day care centers, schools, jails, colleges and nursing homes – put many people in close quarters and may act as petri dishes, potential breeding grounds for a virus like H1N1 flu.
According to a national council on health care for the homeless, people in shelters “may bear particular risk of contracting influenza because of crowded and unsanitary living conditions, stressed immune systems, and close contact with highly transient persons.”
Like Cogsdell, Northlands resident Alan Arnold, 54, praises Northlands for making the refuge as sanitary and healthy as possible, given the circumstances. They also take what steps they can to keep themselves healthy in flu season.
“I keep Germ-X (hand sanitizer) in my pocket, and I use it pretty regularly,” Arnold said. “After I use the toilet and wash my hands, I use it. Whenever I use utensils … whenever I shake hands with someone …
“I always cover a cough,” he added. “I make sure my hygiene is at high levels.”
Some shelters across the nation require temperature checks when clients check in, to make sure they don’t bring fever into dorms. Some establish isolation wards for sick residents, and some reduce the number of beds they offer or space beds to increase “social distancing” and lower the chance of H1N1 flu spreading.
But managers at Northlands don’t have all those options, and in fact they have appealed in recent weeks for donations of additional beds to accommodate record numbers of clients. On Tuesday, the daily counts stood at 95 men and 17 women.
“We can put some people in smaller rooms, where we can segregate the sick,” said Dave Sena, executive director of the mission. “But we have very limited space for moving beds around.”
The mission maintains high health and sanitary conditions, Sena said, and a van and driver are available to carry residents to a clinic or hospital if someone needs quick medical attention.
“We’ve talked about the what-ifs,” he said. “We haven’t developed a set plan, but we have some experience in dealing with sickness. We have to deal with sickness every year.
“We’re trying to keep people off the street, out of the cold, and that can be a life or death thing. I don’t mean to minimize the flu, but the risk (from this strain) appears to be moderate.”
Few of Northlands’residents are in established priority groups for receiving H1N1 vaccinations, so they will have to wait until supplies are available for the general population, Sena said. Vaccination against seasonal flu also remains “a work in progress.”
“We have had contact with other missions about H1N1 and how they’re handling it,” Sena said. “Some are being a lot more diligent about this, but most appear to be operating normally.”
Chuck Haga is a reporter for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.