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Number of homeless people in Boston who have tested positive for coronavirus skyrockets

City rushing to create additional treatment space

A crowd was on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston on Tuesday.
A crowd was on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston on Tuesday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The number of homeless people infected with novel coronavirus has shot into the triple digits, surging from 5 cases to about 200 in the span of a week, Boston officials said Tuesday.

The tally of confirmed cases represents about 30 percent of the local homeless people tested so far, said Boston Health and Human Services director Marty Martinez. Between 600 and 700 homeless people have undergone the test since testing began in earnest late last month.

The majority of those who tested positive had no symptoms. So far, none of the homeless people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died, he said.

The surge is “certainly not what we’d hoped for, but it’s not surprising," given many homeless people aren’t able to practice social distancing, Martinez said.

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Advocates and health officials have spent weeks warning that the virus could carve a path through Boston’s homeless community, which numbered greater than 6,000 in the last city census. People without permanent homes are unable to isolate, and the congregate nature of temporary shelters where hundreds gather each night to sleep makes social distancing impossible.

To fend off an outbreak, service providers last month set up temporary isolation and quarantine sites outside several local shelters, including the Southampton Street shelter in the South End. Some, like the St. Francis House, established screening processes to check people for symptoms.

As testing ramped up, so did the number of positive tests. Most of those found infected were recent guests at the Pine Street Inn, Martinez said. The shelter has closed to new arrivals to control the virus spread, agency officials said Tuesday.

Now, several of the temporary isolation and testing centers set up outside local shelters last month, are at or nearing capacity, Martinez said.

With space dwindling, city and public health authorities are rushing to find additional space to treat people diagnosed with the virus.

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The massive Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is being converted to a 1,000-bed field hospital, and half of those beds are dedicated for the city’s homeless. Martinez said the beds will go to homeless people who have been diagnosed with the virus, but have mild symptoms who do not require hospital treatment.

The city is also working to convert the Nathan R. Miller student dormitory at Suffolk University in downtown Boston, and former Kindred Hospital in Brighton into shelter space.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday he expects the work at the convention center to be completed this week, but it was unclear when the facility would see its first patient. The first people that will be occupying the center will be the homeless, according to the mayor.

“Hopefully we’ll never have to use it, but unfortunately we probably will,” he said at the Tuesday press conference.



Vernal Coleman can be reached at vernal.coleman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.