Word of the disease spreading among the homeless in Venice began with a nonprofit service provider and was amplified by a neighborhood activist seeking public office

By Gary Walker

Lava Mae’s mobile hygiene trailer includes three bathing compartments, each with a shower, toilet and sink
Photo By Maria Martin

Los Angeles County public health officials are pushing back against a rumor that a virulent strain of antibiotic-resistant bacterium is spreading rapidly among the homeless in Venice and may pose a risk to others.

In a Dec. 30 email blast, the Venice Stakeholders Association asserted that at least half a dozen homeless people who had utilized a mobile shower trailer near Rose and Third avenues showed signs of being infected with MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).

Titled “MRSA Outbreak at 3rd and Rose,” the press release attributes that information to a representative of Lava Mae, the nonprofit organization that began offering the showers in November.

It quotes Lava Mae Los Angeles Branch Director Jasmin Mouflard-Kozowy as saying: “We saw six individuals who were taking drugs to treat MRSA and another three people who have the open sores that suggest they also are infected with the staphylococcus bacteria. While we are not health care professionals, we concluded that at least the six who have been prescribed with drugs to treat the bacteria have MRSA.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has investigated the claim and refutes the assertion of a MRSA outbreak in Venice.

“Physicians are required to report MRSA cases to public health. No outbreaks for MRSA have been reported to public health at this time,” reads an email statement by the department. “It is important to note that MRSA cannot be diagnosed by visual inspection; a clinical evaluation and lab testing is required for diagnosis. Other bacteria and conditions can cause signs/symptoms that are similar to MRSA.”

The Venice Family Clinic, which is headquartered on Rose Avenue and provides primary health care to low-income and indigent residents, has treated MRSA among the local homeless population but refuted claims of an outbreak.

“Our chief medical officer can confirm that, compared to the housed population, there have been higher (and steady) prevalence rates of MRSA. However, there has not been a recent outbreak,” reads a statement by Venice Family Clinic spokeswoman Rachel Lichtman.

Mouflard-Kozowy could not be reached to discuss the statements attributed to her. Instead, Lava Mae spokeswoman Deborah Schneider said the nonprofit could neither “confirm nor deny the existence of MRSA in our guests,” but did confirm that Mouflard-Kozowy had discussed MRSA at a recent Venice Neighborhood Council meeting.

The Venice Stakeholders Association has been relentlessly critical of city action, or lack thereof, to address rampant homelessness in Venice. The group has sued the city for allowing homeless encampments to persist along the Venice Boardwalk.

Venice Stakeholders Association President Mark Ryavec is also one of two candidates running to unseat L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin in the upcoming March election. Ryavec has been critical of Bonin’s efforts to reduce homelessness in Venice through a combination of more vigorous police patrols and an expansion of social services and affordable housing resources.

In a telephone interview, Ryavec said that he spoke with Mouflard-Kozowy prior to disseminating the Venice Stakeholders Association press release and that she confirmed to him that what he wrote was accurate.

“I was simply reporting what the Lava Mae director told me during a 20-minute phone conversation. It was her conclusion that there were six cases of MRSA on Third Street,” Ryavec said.

Bonin, who welcomed Lava Mae to Venice in November, has issued his own statement that misinformation, not MRSA, is what’s spreading in Venice.

“At a recent community meeting, when discussing the benefits of providing people living on the street basic hygienic services, a Lava Mae employee mentioned that some of the people who Lava Mae serves in Venice had prescriptions for medication to treat staph infections. This mention of medication has fueled a rumor that quickly spread in Venice about an outbreak of staph infections,” Bonin wrote in an email to The Argonaut.

“My office looked into the rumor immediately, and we have been in touch with Lava Mae, county Supervisor Shelia Kuehl’s office, the Venice City-County-Community Outreach Team and the nurse practitioner housed at Venice Family Clinic, who works with this population in Venice,” Bonin continued. “People living on the streets are at risk of disease and infection, but all relevant officials assure us there is no abnormal incident of illness in Venice. “

Lava Mae’s Schneider stated that Mouflard-Kozowy was passing along second-hand information as a means of describing the range of community benefits resulting from Lava Mae’s work.

“Our Los Angeles branch director shared information she received from a partner regarding an outbreak of MRSA among the homeless in Venice, and she detailed Lava Mae’s protocols for sanitizing our units,” Schneider explained. “Lava Mae not only provides an opportunity for people moving through homelessness to access a basic, essential service, but because good hygiene helps contain and prevent the spread of contagious diseases, we mitigate public health challenges for the broader community.”

Bonin indirectly accused Ryavec and the Venice Stakeholders Association of trying to undermine both Lava Mae’s work and the city’s.

“Inexplicably, some people have used this rumor as an argument against providing services to the homeless. Rather, I believe that this situation highlights the urgent need to help people who are forced to live on the street by providing them services such as basic hygiene and medical care, as well as resources that will help connect them with housing opportunities,” he wrote.

Ryavec denied that he was intentionally trying to mislead anyone. He said he sent the email “in the interest of public safety and community service,” and it was Mouflard-Kozowy, not him, who first mentioned MRSA.

“I would have investigated this issue and released the press release whether I was running for office or not,” he added.