Edmonton's isolation shelter set to expand, convention centre outbreak grows to 22 cases

As cases of COVID-19 continue to increase among Edmonton’s homeless population the city’s isolation shelter is planning to expand its capacity.

Convention centre shelter will remain operational throughout outbreak

A scene from a homeless encampment in Edmonton this summer. The city's only isolation facility for homeless people with COVID-19 is set to expand its capacity. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

As cases of COVID-19 continue to increase among Edmonton's homeless population, the city's only isolation facility for homeless people is planning to expand.

The isolation shelter opened three months ago to provide a safe place for people without a home to recover from the disease. Its location is not publicly disclosed.

It has 65 beds but will soon increase its capacity by 40 per cent to contend with capacity issues that could arise in the weeks ahead, said Elliott Tanti, a spokesperson for the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, which operates the isolation shelter.

The existing site will expand within the next two weeks, as soon as enough staff can be redirected to manage the new beds, Tanti said Thursday.

"It feels a little bit like we're in the eye of the storm right now."

Frontline workers are preparing for a possible large outbreak of COVID-19 among people who are homeless.

"We did go a very long time without a confirmed case in the inner city, and that is no longer the case," Tanti said. "And so the ramp-up of cases and the pressures on the sector right now, we know will exist for the next two or three weeks. 

"We have to make arrangements to make sure that we're keeping our staff and the people we serve as safe as possible. That's the bottom line."

Site opened in August

Homeless people in Edmonton who test positive for COVID-19 — but who don't require hospitalization — are immediately transferred to the isolation shelter.

The site began operating in early August after an emergency shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre closed, leaving hundreds of people looking elsewhere for food, shelter and medical services. 

The lease on the isolation site was secured by the province through a partnership with a private operator. Out of privacy concerns for the people staying there, the location has never been disclosed publicly.

Each resident has an individual room and bathroom and gets three meals each day. Medical staff and security officers ensure patients are safely admitted, monitored and discharged. 

The shelter was initially designed to house all individuals in the homeless population who were possibly infected but that is no longer the case, Tanti said.

In September, shortly after the first outbreak was identified in the city's homeless population, overflow isolation sites were set up across the city for people who developed symptoms, or were considered close contacts, but had not yet tested positive.

Those sites are still operating. Tanti said they were opened to ease any potential capacity issues at the isolation shelter. 

"It's the triaging that I know the medical sector has been doing for months now, but we're doing it now," he said. 

Exact numbers of patients at the isolation facility are hard to pin down, Tanti said. The number of available spaces fluctuates every day. 

"It's hectic," he said.  "People are coming and going. For example, today we went from zero beds available to 15 beds." 

Although the numbers are hard to track, Tanti said confirmed and suspected cases have been steadily increasing in recent weeks, in tandem with escalating COVID-19 cases across the province.

Convention centre outbreak 

Plans to expand the isolation facility coincide with an outbreak at the homeless shelter in the Edmonton Convention Centre downtown.

On Thursday, there were 12 cases linked to the outbreak. On Friday, acting city manager Adam Laughlin told council the outbreak had grown to 22 cases.

"Individuals who tested positive were immediately taken to an isolation space in the facility, before being moved to the Edmonton isolation facility," shelter officials said in a joint news release Thursday.

"Additional precautions have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. These include enhanced cleaning, signage with distancing reminders and the use of personal protective equipment when responding to overdoses and other medical emergencies."

The shelter will remain operational throughout the outbreak. Contact tracing is underway.

The convention centre shelter opened on Oct. 30 as a temporary facility. Hundreds of people — including many who spent the summer living in now-dismantled homeless encampments — now rely on the facility each day.

The outbreak at the convention centre shelter is the third cluster of cases to develop at homeless shelters in the city.

The first outbreak was declared at Hope Mission on Sept. 22 and involved at least 15 cases.

    A second outbreak, also at Hope Mission, was declared on Nov. 18. As of Thursday, 17 cases had been linked to the second Hope Mission outbreak. Ten cases were active and 7 cases had recovered. 

    Tanti said the sector is hopeful that new health restrictions will cut down on community transmission but many of the health directives are difficult, even impossible, to follow when living on the street. 

    "Being able to socially distance is a privilege. How do you isolate when you don't have a home?"


    Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.