Dr. Stephen Hwang, director of the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital, will lead a research team on what is known as the Covenant Study. The one-year project received $ 1.9 million in federal funding through the COVID-19 Immunity Working Group, an organization formed by the federal government in late April to track the spread of the virus across the country. Canada.
“People who are homeless are at a significantly increased risk of contracting COVID-19. However, we don’t know what proportion of the homeless population has been exposed to COVID over the past year, ”Hwang said Wednesday.
The general internal medicine specialist said the study aims to gather evidence that will guide public health measures across the country to curb the spread of COVID-19 among homeless people. The research team will include university and hospital experts in epidemiology and in the laboratory.
“It’s really important that we get this information so that we can step in to control the infection and also understand the importance of prioritizing this population for the vaccine when it is available,” Hwang said.
Toronto has the largest homeless population in the country.
According to city data on daily shelter occupancy, the number of people who used its shelter services on Tuesday was over 6,000. As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, there were a total of 663 cases of COVID-19. linked to outbreaks in shelters since the start of the pandemic.
With the help of the city and community organizations, researchers hope to recruit 700 people to shelters, 24-hour respite centers, hotel shelters and camps for the homeless.
Hwang said the recruiting will likely take a few months, and once completed, the research team will produce an initial report, likely in March. The project is expected to end with a final report in 2022.
He said the researchers wanted to recruit a random sample of people experiencing homelessness and would like the sample to be representative.
“We need to capture a large sample of people, which includes young people, families, single adults, men and women as well as people in the settlements who are homeless,” he said.
Researchers must register with participants every 3 months
Researchers hope to recruit people from the five largest settlements, including Moss Park, Alexandra Park, and Trinity Bellwoods Park. Supporters estimate that around 1,000 people live in tents in settlements in Toronto, although the city estimates that number is closer to 400.
Hwang said the researchers plan to check the participants every three months for a year to track the number of new infections and the rate at which unhoused people develop symptoms of COVID-19, in order to assess how well they are. able to access the vaccine and to identify groups within the homeless population who may have limited access to the vaccine.
“Certainly the goal should be to vaccinate this group. The question would be to what extent homeless people are willing to be vaccinated and can access the vaccine. This is something that we will also be looking at, ”he said.
At each registration or interview, researchers will test participants for current and past infections of COVID-19. Researchers will ask questions about any symptoms of COVID-19 and any interactions with health care and shelter systems.
The researchers will use the data to build a computer simulation model that will make projections of the transmission of COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population and assess the potential impact of public health measures to curb the spread.
According to the task force, participants will receive compensation of $ 40 for each interview. For follow-up interviews, participants will receive an additional fee of $ 10 if they call the research team to register prior to the interview.
The research team will include 15 scientists from institutions such as the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital.
In a press release on Wednesday, the task force said: “COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the health of homeless people. Homelessness puts people at high risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelters are an ideal environment for the transmission of SARS. -CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. ”
He said the study aims to inform better public health measures, which could include repeated screening of the homeless population as opposed to one-off screening, the creation of smaller shelters and accommodation. high risk people in hotels.
The task force said the overall aim of the study was to reduce the adverse health effects of homeless people and mitigate the resulting impact on the health care system. He said the study results will be used to support health policy and research in cities across Canada.