Fact check: False claim homeless people unaffected by COVID-19 spreads online – again – USA TODAY

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The claim: COVID-19 isn’t real because it doesn’t affect homeless people

Even though more than 2,000 daily deaths were recently reported in the United States due to COVID-19, some are still questioning whether the pandemic is real, asserting some groups haven’t been affected by it.

“In a real pandemic, there would simply be no more homeless people, as they would have all perished,” says the caption of a Sept. 22 Instagram post, which has accrued  about 9,000 shares in six days.

USA TODAY has previously debunked claims that homeless people haven’t been stricken by COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Social media users in the comments, however, believe that they are somehow immune from the virus.

“Valid point. Without medical care and insurance which most of them don’t have covid should’ve wiped them out,” one user wrote.

“Exactly what I’ve been saying for a year now. We would have little to no homeless. Instead, we have more than ever with ZERO reports of any type of mass fatalities or outbreaks even,” another one commented.

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But that’s not accurate. Studies were published mostly throughout 2020 analyzing the impact the virus had on people without shelter, despite the challenges of accurately counting them. And that has not changed this year.

USA TODAY reached out to the poster for comment.

Homeless people still testing positive

For starters, the assertion that any argument could prove the pandemic isn’t real is absurd. Over the last year and a half, COVID-19 has claimed 4.9 million lives, including 690,000 in the U.S.

By comparison, the flu is estimated to have killed between 22,000 and 61,000 annually over the last five years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

And contrary to what the claim asserts, homeless people have been affected by the pandemic – disproportionately so in fact, according to the CDC. 

In New York City, the age-adjusted coronavirus mortality rate for sheltered homeless people was almost 50% higher than the COVID-19 mortality rate of other residents not experiencing homelessness, according to data analyzed by the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization for the rights of homeless people. 

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This is at least partly because they tend to be older adults and often have underlying health conditions, which makes them a higher risk population for severe illness. Homeless services, including shelters, are often group settings, which make social distancing difficult and facilitate the spread of the virus.

CDC study carried out between March and April 2020 in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Atlanta found that 293 of 1,192 shelter residents – about 25% – tested positive for COVID-19. About 11% of the shelters’ employees tested positive as well, USA TODAY reported at the time.

Homelessness has been increasing every year since 2017, according to a yearly count of homeless Americans by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The count, which is done throughout 10 days every January, revealed that around 580,000 people were homeless in 2020, the year for which the most recent data is available. About 61% were staying in shelters.

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Across the country, homeless people have been testing positive for the virus.

In Santa Rosa, California, a shelter recently reopened for new intakes after an outbreak forced it to shut down in July. And a homeless shelter in Montana is experiencing the highest number of positive cases among its residents since the pandemic started, a local news outlet reported on Sept. 27. 

Data from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which works to improve health care for homeless people, shows more than 375,000 people nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19 at health centers nationwide with homeless programs, the Washington Post reported in July.

However, counting cases and deaths within the homeless population presents its own challenges. Attempted counts have led to a “vast undercount” in COVID-related deaths, Katherine Cavanaugh, a consumer advocate with the health care homeless council, told STAT News in March.

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One reason for this is the housing status of a person isn’t considered by any “major Covid dashboard,” she said, so official data isn’t easily available. Another reason, the news outlet reported, is because many homeless people don’t receive autopsies to confirm the cause of death.

At least two California counties, Orange County and Los Angeles County, saw an increase in homeless deaths starting in March 2020, STAT News reported. Yet only a small number of those were attributed to COVID-19.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that COVID-19 isn’t real because it doesn’t affect homeless people. The reality of COVID-19 is tragically clear in its seven-figure death toll. And there have been multiple coronavirus outbreaks in homeless shelters nationwide. While it’s difficult to determine how many homeless people have tested positive, data from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council suggests the number at  more than 375,000.

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