Mortality among People Experiencing Homelessness in San Francisco during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Caroline Cawley, Hemal K. Kanzaria, Barry Zevin, Kelly M. Doran, Margot Kushel, Maria C. Raven

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Importance: There has been recent media attention on the risk of excess mortality among homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet data on these deaths are limited. Objectives: To quantify and describe deaths among people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco during the COVID-19 pandemic and to compare the characteristics of these deaths with those in prior years. Design, Setting, and Participants: A cross-sectional study tracking mortality among people experiencing homelessness from 2016 to 2021 in San Francisco, California. All deceased individuals who were homeless in San Francisco at the time of death and whose deaths were processed by the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were included. Data analysis was performed from August to October 2021. Exposure: Homelessness, based on homeless living status in an administrative database. Main Outcomes and Measures: Descriptive statistics were used to understand annual trends in demographic characteristics, cause and manner of death (based on autopsy), substances present in toxicology reports, geographic distribution of deaths, and use of health and social services prior to death. Total estimated numbers of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco were assessed through semiannual point-in-time counts. The 2021 point-in-time count was postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Results: In San Francisco, there were 331 deaths among people experiencing homelessness in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (from March 17, 2020, to March 16, 2021). This number was more than double any number in previous years (eg, 128 deaths in 2016, 128 deaths in 2017, 135 deaths in 2018, and 147 deaths in 2019). Most individuals who died were male (268 of 331 [81%]). Acute drug toxicity was the most common cause of death in each year, followed by traumatic injury. COVID-19 was not listed as the primary cause of any deaths. The proportion of deaths involving fentanyl increased each year (present in 52% of toxicology reports in 2019 and 68% during the pandemic). Fewer decedents had contacts with health services in the year prior to their death during the pandemic than in prior years (13% used substance use disorder services compared with 20% in 2019). Conclusions and Relevance: In this cross-sectional study, the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco increased markedly during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings may guide future interventions to reduce mortality among individuals experiencing homelessness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere221870
JournalJAMA network open
Volume5
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 10 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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