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Skid Row TB update: Federal health officials leave LA, area shelters still reeling

By Hayley Fox
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at 11:09AM
Brian Watt/KPCC

Desmond Williams wearing a protective mask on Skid Row. Although federal health officials left last week, local shelters are still grappling with volunteers who are afraid to return to the area.

An ongoing tuberculosis outbreak among Skid Row homeless led local health officials to call in federal and state help last month. After a multi-week investigation, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) left downtown L.A. last week — but some area shelters are still dealing with the fallout.

Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission, said he is still fielding calls from concerned volunteers and donors. Even though officials from the L.A. County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) insist that this Skid Row TB strain isn't a threat to the general public, some people are afraid they will catch the disease by visiting the area.

Smith said that it will take time for volunteers to feel comfortable returning to Skid Row, adding that his shelter is "having a tough time fighting back" against all the coverage that scared people off in the first place.

In February, health officials reported that 60 homeless people had been infected with this particular strain of TB since 2007 — and 11 had died. Over the course of officials' recent investigation however, they discovered no new active cases of TB on Skid Row.

But director of the LACDPH Jonathan Fielding says that will probably change. As enhanced screenings and collaborative efforts with local service providers continue, Fielding said they may uncover new TB cases in the coming weeks. He added that the health department understands what the priorities are in terms of who is most likely to be exposed to disease, and knows what to do to minimize that exposure.

Area shelters will continue to screen homeless individuals and be on the lookout for people with TB symptoms. Smith of the L.A. Mission says it's still going to take time for volunteers to feel comfortable enough to return to Skid Row.

As news of the TB outbreak spread last month, many who live and work in Skid Row said disease is nothing new for the area. LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph, who's patrolled the Skid Row area for 14 years, said the outbreak is "alarming" but not surprising.

"We've had outbreaks of other diseases before because of the poor quality of life in the area so this is not a shock to me," Joseph told Blogdowntown in February.

Joseph said tuberculosis — along with HIV and hepatitis A, B and C — were common among many of the people he arrested and brought to the station.

"Historically, Skid Row has been kind of a, for lack of a better term, a Petri dish for a whole lot of things," said Joseph. "As long as I've known it, and we just got to find a way to change that..."

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