The Community Health Centers of Burlington has launched a mobile coronavirus testing service for the area's homeless population.
CHCB providers can now roll up to homeless camps or other shared living areas using a small cargo van that's on loan from affordable housing developer Champlain Housing Trust. The service began late last week.
"We've got our N95s, our visors. There's booties and goggles in there, and that's our kit," CHCB nurse Anna Lisa Reynolds said on Monday as she peered into the nondescript white van parked at the center's facility in Burlington's South End.
"It's a pretty simple process," Reynolds said. "The fact that you can get to people is a game-changer."
CHCB is currently staffing a Vermont Department of Health drive-up testing site in South Hero, and there's a similar operation in use at the Champlain Valley Exposition fairgrounds in Essex Junction.
But many of CHCB's homeless clients don't have access to a vehicle, according to medical director Heather Stein. Bringing the test kits to the patients, instead of asking them to travel, reduces the chance that the virus will spread, she said.
"It's a big part of our mission to take care of people, no matter what their housing situation, economic situation, walk of life," Stein said. "Reducing barriers to care is a big part of what CHCB does and a big part of our mission."
Though CHCB is based in Chittenden County, the van will travel wherever it's needed, Stein said. It has already made a stop at Champlain Housing Trust's Harbor Place, a motel that typically houses people in crisis and is now serving as an isolation center for people with coronavirus symptoms.
Stein said homeless people are especially vulnerable during this pandemic because many of them have chronic health conditions that make it difficult to recover from COVID-19.
The health department provides the test kits and collects the specimens for processing at the state lab, according to Stein. She expects the staff running the van will collect up to 30 samples a week.
CHCB medical director Heather Stein
Just like any other Vermonter, a homeless patient still needs a referral from a primary care doctor before getting tested. If the patient doesn't have a doctor, the health care providers who are staffing the van can provide an on-site referral, Stein said.
CHCB performed about 10 mobile tests last week and five to six on Monday morning, according to Stein.
"Hopefully we're identifying those people so that we don't get an outbreak within the homeless community," she said. "We don't want the spread in that community to be any greater than the rest of Chittenden County and Vermont."
Stein also cheered the creation of a COVID recovery center for the homeless, which is expected to open this week at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.
"Those sorts of efforts to keep people ... where they can shelter in place safely and in a way that they're not putting those around them at risk is really important," Stein said.