The last year of medical school means rotating between hospital services, traveling the country in search of residency programs and studying for the final board exam.
While Nathaniel Breslin and his peers still have to study, their last year meant the arrival of a global pandemic.
The 26-year-old UF medical student said he and other students were suddenly pulled from their rotations at UF Health Shands Hospital when cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Alachua County. He said that because they were at the hospital to learn, the hospital administration deemed them nonessential workers.
Although students were not pressured to help, Breslin said he and 10 other furloughed medical students and some hospital staff joined a UF Health program to provide COVID-19 testing to the homeless population, a group they believed to be at risk of contracting the virus, he said.
While they have yet to find a positive case of COVID-19 within the homeless, he said, they have been testing people who were sheltering at one of Alachua County’s homeless shelters, Grace Marketplace, and handing out masks, gloves and hand sanitizer provided by the Department of Health to people around the county.
“We were able to get enough supplies, but we just had to be smart with how we used the supplies to make sure there was not waste,” Breslin said.
But they soon realized that they could not reach a large portion of the homeless population, Breslin said. Grace Marketplace Executive Director Jon DeCarmine said their facility has a maximum capacity of 189 overnight guests, but right now the shelter is operating at 70 percent capacity due to COVID-19.
He said the 2019 Point-in-Time survey by the North Central Florida Alliance for the Homeless and Hungry reported just under 800 people without housing in Alachua County in a 24-hour period. Based on a preliminary survey, DeCarmine said the number for 2020 is about 775.
So, they decided to expand the project. The team gathered the 10 student volunteers to start the UF chapter of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, an extension of a national movement that was started by Columbia University’s medical school, Breslin said.
“Part of the homeless community that was just out somewhere in Gainesville didn't have access to resources,” Breslin said. “It just evolved into so much more of just really figuring out anything we can do to just make sure they're safe.”
Breslin said the homeless typically get food, money and other needs by panhandling. But with most people at home and off the streets, the population does not have access to their typical resources anymore, he said.
According to an article by The Washington Post, with businesses and restaurants closing, homeless people on the streets don’t have open restrooms to use and struggle to maintain good hygiene. Some people who usually depend on street begging for money are now receiving much less than they used to, the Post reported.
The group reached out to Alachua County Community Support Services, a department that provides housing, health and child services to the community, and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, a facility for mental health support and treatment for substance abuse. Both groups are partnered with Grace Marketplace and are experts on homeless encampments around the area.
They gave the volunteer group a general area to target each week and they began to work together to locate the homeless population spread across Gainesville, he said. Once located, they screened the homeless for the virus, put their information in a database and kept track of them, Breslin said. If they tested positive, the volunteers arranged several hotel rooms, paid for by the county, to isolate them in.
They have yet to find positive cases, Breslin said, but the hospital would be prepared to provide treatment to the homeless.
“When you get everyone gloves, when you give everyone hand sanitizer, you know, masks so they can wear when they're panhandling, they can still go on their day-to-day activities and also be safe,” Breslin said.
Dr. Jonathan G. Harrell, the medical director of the UF mobile outreach clinic, said one of the primary goals of the clinic is to provide care for underserved and vulnerable populations, like the homeless community.
“Things like hypertension, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high rates of smoking, that's what makes that population particularly vulnerable to bad outcomes in terms of being in a situation where infection could spread rapidly,” Harrell said.
He said it is likely there have yet to be any cases among the homeless population because Gainesville is a less congested city, compared to urban areas that have experienced higher rates among the homeless.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta have experienced higher rates of the virus among the homeless population.
He also said that the homeless who are not in shelters are oftentimes not congregating in large groups, but rather spread out in the woods or empty areas.
“I think we've done a great job educating the shelter, the homeless population about social distancing and about being careful,” Harrell said.
Harrell said the volunteer medical students have been critical to the clinic’s effort to provide resources to the homeless population.
Most students pursue medicine because it is a “helping profession,” Harrell said. Medical students are no longer in their clinical rotations, but they are providing services to the community that doctors can no longer provide, he said.
Harrell said he mainly supervises the project and provides guidance and training to students who set up the testing sites.
“The students are really taking ownership and figuring out how to run these test sites efficiently,” Harrell said.
Breslin said volunteers have expanded the project to provide relief through food outreach, telehealth outreach and babysitting for medical professional’s kids. He said they created a website to showcase the range of programs available to the community.
“The service that we're providing right now is something that these doctors and these residents can't do because they're so busy working in the hospital,” Breslin said. “Even though we can't be there, we have still all found other ways to help.”