COVID-19 outbreak at Edmonton shelter grows, heightening concerns for homeless population
'They talk about this second wave and that really is a concern'
Cases of COVID-19 linked to an outbreak of the disease at a downtown Edmonton homeless shelter have more than doubled in less than a month, aggravating concerns about the prospect of wider spread among the city's most vulnerable.
The outbreak at Hope Mission emergency shelter was declared by Alberta Health Services on Sept. 22. At the time, six active cases had been identified, all among clients.
AHS had started investigating in early September after one person in the homeless population tested positive.
As of Friday morning, 15 cases had been linked to the Hope Mission outbreak. Thirteen patients have recovered and two cases are considered active, AHS said in a statement.
One staff member has been infected. The rest of the cases have been identified among clients of the shelter, which operates year-round, providing sleeping space to more than 300 people each night.
AHS said contact tracing is underway and a public health investigation tracing the source of the outbreak is ongoing.
Health officials have been working closely with the Hope Mission, AHS said. Contact tracing is underway. Anyone who may have been exposed is being tested and isolated.
"These cases were identified, in part, by the aggressive testing that was undertaken," AHS said.
Hope Mission director Bruce Reith said the shelter is taking every precaution to contain the spread.
Clients are being socially distanced, he said. Staff have been equipped with PPE and individuals exhibiting symptoms are being immediately transported to an isolation facility for testing and treatment.
Government and health officials have been supportive in helping the shelter manage the risk of COVID-19, Reith said.
But he remains uneasy and expects more cases will be identified. Clients are "wary" and staff are stressed, he said.
"It seems like we have everything under control but you never know," Reith told CBC News on Friday.
"I'm just concerned with us going into winter right now and that's the most stressful time because we don't want anyone out in the cold.
"They talk about this second wave and that really is a concern among our staff. It's very challenging and very stressful."
The Hope Mission outbreak was the first one reported in Edmonton's homeless community.
Since case numbers in Alberta began to escalate in the spring, advocates issued repeated warnings about the prospect of an outbreak in the homeless population.
People without a home are particularly vulnerable to illness. They often live in cramped conditions and struggle with pre-existing health conditions.
"We're concerned for their health," Reith said. "This could really hurt a lot of people."
He said he's most concerned about people living in makeshift camps. Health services are limited in tent encampments.
While a camp in Old Strathcona set up in early September, is being dismantled by its residents, Camp Pekiwewin — the sprawling homeless encampment near Re/Max Field — remains standing.
Dozens of other homeless camps are scattered throughout the city. An outbreak among those living on the streets could spread "like wildfire," Reith said.
"I'm concerned about the camps," he said. "They have a couple hundred people and they're not socially distanced, they're not wearing masks, and that's the concern. We need to break up the camps and get them into the shelters."
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With winter approaching, shelter space will become increasingly cramped. Reith said a planned facility at the Edmonton Convention Centre on Jasper Avenue at 97th Street will ease pressure on emergency shelters.
The city announced Friday it intends to turn part of the facility into a temporary shelter by the end of October, as Mayor Don Iveson looks to make good on his 10-week plan to end homelessness by early November.
The plan for the convention centre comes months after the city closed temporary shelters at the Kinsmen Recreation Centre and Expo Centre, first set up at the outset of the pandemic.