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City officials have established a temporary medical clinic outside a South End homeless shelter and said they’re prepared to create other pop-up, makeshift clinics across the city to quarantine homeless people showing signs of COVID-19 infection.

Two tents built in recent days at the Southampton Street Shelter will be used to isolate homeless residents who show symptoms or have been exposed to the virus, city officials told The Boston Globe late Tuesday afternoon. Each tent can accommodate around 20 people.

Around 20 people have already been tested as a result of screening at the pop-up clinic, said Dr. Jessie Gaeta, chief medical officer at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. None have tested positive so far, but, Gaeta said, “we do expect some soon.”

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The program has designated 17 beds at its treatment center in South Boston for people diagnosed with the virus.

The Southampton site is one of the first of what may be several such clinics, as city officials and local homeless service providers look to ramp up capacity to identify and treat homeless people threatened by the virus. Another site, set up outside the Woods-Mullen women’s shelter in the South End, will provide screening and testing services.

“We’re prepared to scale this operation up if it’s warranted,” said Boston housing director Sheila Dillon.

The clinics are the latest development in local efforts to stave off a potentially devastating COVID-19 outbreak among people living shelters and on city streets. As with most viral outbreaks, homeless people with limited access to sanitary products or running water are especially vulnerable. Moreover, the easy transmission of the virus makes sleeping inside crowded emergency shelters — some of which house 200 people nightly — potentially risky.

“If someone who is infected with coronavirus goes to a shelter, there’s going to be really tremendous risk of spread,” said Miriam Komaromy, medical director for the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center.

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Komaromy praised the city’s efforts and said it had recognized the necessity of having one facility for those who are infected and another for those awaiting test results. She added that public health officials should also consider the needs of those addicted to opioids, alcohol, and other substances.

“If people are suddenly being confined, they’re going to go through withdrawal . . . They need access to treatment,” She said.

Up to 1,800 adults spend their nights in city emergency shelters, city officials said. Many of them, advocates say, are over 50 years old and suffer serious medical conditions that can worsen the infection. COVID-19 has proven far more dangerous to the elderly and those with weak immune systems.

The city’s contingency plan has been weeks in development, inching forward as the number of reported novel coronavirus infections in the United States exploded.

Homeless service operators began by posting information about the virus inside shelters, increasing daily cleanings, and stocking up on sanitary products. They also stepped up outreach, sending out workers and volunteers armed with educational flyers and hand sanitizer.

As the crisis worsened, city officials began searching for additional space to quarantine people showing signs of infection, and established protocols for testing people seeking overnight shelter. The testing is set up ramp up this week, officials said Tuesday.

Brenda King panhandles for change on Tremont Street near the Park Street Church in Boston on Friday. "I'm going to ask my doctor for some masks," she said.
Brenda King panhandles for change on Tremont Street near the Park Street Church in Boston on Friday. "I'm going to ask my doctor for some masks," she said. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Some of Boston’s homeless are struggling with the added challenge of avoiding a virus that’s easy to catch, but hard to detect.

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Brenda King, 53, learned about the virus’ spread from friends and listening in on news reports. King, who has cycled in and out of homelessness for a decade, told the Globe last week that the threat of the virus makes living on the streets worse.

She said everyone on the streets, on buses, and inside shelters, is worried.

“Right now, things are just really scary if you’re on the street," she said.

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Vernal Coleman can be reached at vernal.coleman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman