Health officials working to step up COVID-19 testing at 'Camp Quarantine'

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About 100 homeless men and women live in an encampment in a grass area just off Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis.

Some who live at the place that has been dubbed "Camp Quarantine" are reportedly fearful of contracting COVID-19 at an indoor shelter. But officials worry the structure of the makeshift community makes the virus harder to track. 

“It's a lot easier to manage, track, and trace if there is infection when you know where everybody is,” said Lisa Barajas, the Metropolitan Council community development director. 

The council is now taking action after an executive order last week by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz that allows state or local governments to restrict or close encampments big enough to be a safety or health threat to residents. 

The council doesn’t want to close the encampment without testing everyone first. 

"If you do a straight-out clearing of an encampment without any testing — if you don't know — you don't know where folks have gone, and you don't know if they're being in touch with others and spreading it," Barajas said.

Just this week, Metro Transit officials, fearing a potential spread of the virus, ordered the construction of a fence around the site. 

The encampment is near the Blue Line light rail transit tracks and an electric substation. 

Homeless set up encampment in downtown St. Paul fearing COVID-19 health risks in shelters

The Metropolitan Council also said Metro Transit Police Officers are going into the camp telling residents to keep their tents 10 feet apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“We’re definitely following CDC guidelines on preventing the spread of the COVID within the encampment,” Barajas said. 

Minneapolis has had issues with homeless encampments in this area before. 

Back in 2018, police answered hundreds of calls for violent or inappropriate behavior. 

But this is a whole new challenge: trying to track people who may have been infected and protect those who haven’t. 

"We understand the urgency behind that and being able to make informed decisions about how we can protect public health for all of those that are in the encampment." 

Hennepin County Officials say Healthcare for the Homeless will test anyone who is symptomatic for COVID-19.

There will be protocols in place to offer isolation for those who test positive. 

Exactly when testing will begin is still being worked out. 

“It’s really important for us to do this both to make sure folks within the encampment catch up on all the resources that need to be safe and healthy, but also protect folks who might not be infected as well, and prevent them from being infected,” Barajas says.