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Are Los Angeles CARE+ Teams Spreading COVID-19?

The city’s program intended to “clean up” LA’s streets is actually making them far more dangerous.

A CARE+ mobile hygiene unit (Source: LASAN Facebook)

“They found COVID in the showers.”

This alarming statement spread throughout El Pueblo, the area of downtown Los Angeles that is home to El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the Olvera Street Mexican Marketplace, and dozens upon dozens of our unhoused neighbors living in tents.

The “showers” referred to here are the city CARE+ teams’ mobile hygiene units. Normally the CARE+ teams (which stands for cleaning and rapid engagement) arrive in El Pueblo every Tuesday to conduct “sweeps,” the controversial practice that requires unhoused individuals to move all their belongings away from an area so that the Department of Sanitation can clean the sidewalks. During these sweeps, CARE+ teams must provide access to mobile hygiene units that include bathrooms and showers.

“They stopped the use of the showers because they found COVID,” I was told by Rosa, an unhoused woman who lives in the El Pueblo encampment. “We don’t know when they are bringing back. It’s LAHSA who is in charge to let us know.”

Rosa standing next to her tent with her dog (Source: Katie Fedigan-Linton)

According to the unhoused residents of El Pueblo, the city has been extremely inconsistent about telling them when sweeps have been canceled and what the risk of COVID-19 exposure from the showers is.

“At first they didn’t say nothing until the second or third time [the sweeps were canceled],” said Harvey, an unhoused man known as The Mayor around El Pueblo. “And every day that they told us we didn’t have to move, we ended up having to move, so that ended up being a big problem.”

Ian Carr, a member of Street Watch LA, explained that the sweeps mysteriously stopped happening on Tuesday November 10th and that a CARE+ team member informed the unhoused residents of the COVID-19 outbreak in the showers on November 17th. The sweeps then restarted without warning on Tuesday December 1st.

I reached out to the city directly to verify what I was told and to ask what new precautions they had implemented to ensure that the showers would not become a vector for COVID-19 again. I received this response:

As with any front line, essential industry, LASAN [Los Angeles Sanitation] is faced with inevitable challenges with regard to COVID-19. In mid-November, LASAN suspended the Mobile Hygiene Units (MHU) city-wide out of an abundance of caution due to potential workplace exposure from COVID-19…

MHU service resumed on Monday, November 30, 2020. In addition to the safety precautions already in place, sanitizing and disinfecting the units between clients and wearing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) by the staff, the MHU staff now wear face shields on top of their N95 masks and take the temperatures of staff and clients prior to service.

Surprised by the city’s assertion that the showers themselves had not been spreading COVID-19, but rather that a CARE+ team member had a “potential workplace exposure,” I reached out to Dr. Randall Kuhn, an Associate Professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, for clarification.

“It would depend on the variables, but [a mobile hygiene unit] doesn’t seem like an obvious vector of disease as long as it’s maintained properly,” Dr. Kuhn explained. “Showers might even protect against infectious diseases. We have no idea if these showers are advantageous — there’s no hard data. It’s always possible for these hygiene solutions to backfire, it depends on context.”

Considering the fact that the CDC has explicitly warned cities against conducting sweeps due to the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 — a warning Los Angeles officials have routinely ignored — learning that it’s unclear whether or not the mobile hygiene units are actually helpful was disconcerting.

Special Enforcement & Cleaning Zone signs posted in El Pueblo (Source: Katie Fedigan-Linton)

Harvey continued to voice his frustration with the CARE+ teams: “You guys are risking our lives, you guys go to other spots, so you bring the disease here. How do I know you’re clean? It’s been in the news that the coronavirus is getting a lot worse, and you’re just inviting the virus over to us.”

As of this writing, there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the El Pueblo encampment and there has only been one full sweep conducted since Tuesday December 1st. Instead, every week has consisted of “spot cleaning” (when LASAN flushes the sidewalks around the tents of unhoused people instead of forcing them to move) or last minute sweep cancellation due to nearby film shoots. Several unhoused residents have been upset by this inconsistency and lack of communication because in many cases they had already finished moving all of their belongings — thus increasing their risk of exposure to and spread of COVID-19 — by the time they were told there would be no sweep.

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