Helping People Who Are Homeless Stay Healthy During the Pandemic

The recommendation to stay at home is meaningless to a person who has no home. Same for some other coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) mitigation measures, such as frequent handwashing—difficult when even many “public” restrooms are for customers’ use only—and social distancing, which is tricky to maintain on the streets or in homeless shelters.

On top of that, exposure to harsh weather and the inability to maintain good hygiene mean people experiencing homelessness develop skin problems more frequently than people with stable housing. One out of every 5 visits by a person who is homeless to an emergency department or community clinic is due to dermatological conditions, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Before the pandemic, Tan spearheaded an effort to collect donations of dandruff shampoos, moisturizing creams, and other over-the-counter remedies for skin problems and assemble them into kits to distribute to Boston’s homeless population. This year, one of the medical students she mentors suggested adding COVID-19–related products, such as hand sanitizer and masks, to the kits.

Tan, recently named a “Patient Care Hero” by the American Academy of Dermatology for helping to create and distribute more than 1000 COVID-19 care kits in Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, spoke with JAMA about the challenges of treating skin conditions in people experiencing homelessness, especially during the pandemic.