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When Epidemics Collide: Evictions and COVID in South Carolina

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Elena Mozhvilo
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If mass eviction happens starting in August, anyone unvaccinated or at high risk for COVID could find themselves in a group setting with people who could spread the infection and reignite a pandemic that was never over.

This story is part of continuing coverage of South Carolina's looming eviction crisis as the CDC moratorium winds down.

Social services agencies in South Carolina are being forced to make a choice – do they help individuals who are about to find themselves evicted from their homes? Or do they help families about to find themselves evicted from their homes?

Agencies are going with families, in an unwelcome and unwanted utilitarian calculus – an attempt at doing the most good for the most people.

The problem for agencies like United Way of Lancaster County, says its CEO, Amber Jackson, is that this calculus doesn’t lead to any good answers. For one, focusing on families doesn’t help the single person who now has to navigate homelessness.

But for families, help is likely to be hampered by the fact that the COVID pandemic isn’t over.

Where do you send families and how do you help them when the only place to send them is to live among other people they might or might not know? Anywhere you find for them to go elevates the risk of contracting COVID among a group of people who tend to be unvaccinated and unhealthy.

State Assistant Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly worries about all the above as South Carolinians of all ages find new places to stay once the CDC’s eviction protections lift on August 1.

While senior South Carolinians are overwhelmingly vaccinated against COVID, they’re certainly not 100 percent covered. And even if zero senior residents are evicted, they could find themselves opening the door to their children and grandchildren, who will need a place to stay.

Likewise, says Dr. Kelly, 20-somethings, the by-far-least-vaccinated subset of the population, could crash on multiple friends’ couches while they search for a new place to live – and who knows who else is in one of the houses with a couch to crash on?

There could be unprotected seniors in the house, but there could also be kids too young to get vaccinated yet. There could be unvaccinated adults, at whatever age – all creating what Dr. Kelly calls the proverbial ‘perfect storm,’ a hub from which COVID in its various strains could find a way back into a state that has been doing fairly well with infections and deaths for the past few weeks.

Or, there could be someone with a disability in the house. That person might have been evicted. A report by the National Governor’s Association spells out how 950,000 working-age Americans with disabilities lost work between March and April of 2020; and Able SC CEO Kimberly Tissot says that hit never fully subsided.

But someone with a disability could already be in the house when someone else who was evicted moves in, and if that person has limited mobility (and, thereby, a compromised immune system), the risk of severe COVID illness increases.

And exposure to COVID in congregate settings is not a ‘sky is falling’ worry. Lila Anna Sauls, president and CEO of Homeless No More in Columbia, says most people her agency serves are not vaccinated. She also says it’s hard to get them vaccinated when they’re dealing with the mounting pressure of eviction already.

Even if they got vaccinated, though, it would take three-to-five weeks for the medicine to take effect.

And people on the cusp of being evicted now have two before their protections run out.