'Perfect storm' hits as COVID-19 outbreak sweeps through Hamilton apartment building

Rebecca Towers is the first residential high rise in the city where an outbreak has been declared. Sixty-seven cases have been recorded there since mid-March. One resident has died.

There are 38 active cases in Rebecca Towers as of Wednesday, says public health

A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared at Rebecca Towers. There are 38 active cases there as of Wednesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A COVID-19 outbreak that's spread throughout Rebecca Towers, resulting in dozens of cases and one death, is the result of a "perfect storm" of inequities, according to a legal aid lawyer.

It's a situation the president of Hamilton and District Apartment Association (HDAA), which represents hundreds of landlords in the city, describes as a "nightmare" scenario that shows property managers need more support.

Public health declared the outbreak at the apartment building on Tuesday. Officials say the virus has been found in 17 different units and on 10 floors.

As of Wednesday there are 38 active cases.

It's the first residential tower in the city where an outbreak of the virus has been declared, said Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health. The B117 variant, first identified in the U.K., has been found there.

Sixty-seven cases have been recorded since mid-March. Sixty-six of those have been residents and one is a staff member. One person has died. The 17-storey building at 235 Rebecca Street is home to 164 units.

"If you have a building complex that is crowded, then you have folks in the elevators, congregating in the lobby areas or neighbours just wanting to talk together and socialize during the pandemic, that has taken a toll emotionally, physically and mentally," said Ali Naraghi.

"It's a perfect storm of all these inequity issues combining to … amplify the problem even further."

Naraghi is a staff lawyer with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic who mainly works in the area of housing law.

The clinic is not working with any of the tenants at Rebecca Towers, as of Wednesday afternoon.

He said it's his understanding many people living at the high rise are immigrants and members of multigenerational families living inside apartments. The building is older, he said, and has some maintenance issues.

Company working with public health

Several broken windows could be seen from the street. Flags advertising newly renovated suites flapped in the breeze, with arrows directing passersby to the rental office.

A spokesperson for Medallion, the company that owns the building, said it's "coordinating" its efforts with public health.

"This includes adhering to any advice we receive in regards to the need for additional property management efforts, and any required communications to our residents," read the email from Danny Roth.

The company said it won't be making any further comments on the outbreak as public health is involved, directing any further questions to health officials.

While Rebecca Towers is the only apartment complex to see an outbreak so far, Richardson said there may have been smaller ones in buildings that the city couldn't detect with their systems.

Cases at the building date back to March, but the outbreak was not declared until more than a month later.

A flag and sign advertise rental units at 235 Rebecca Street on May 5, 2021. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Public health said it began investigating after identifying active cases in the building and notified the public once it determined the virus had been transmitted between tenants in different households.

Richardson said there seemed to be "caring of one another" and socialization in the building that led to the spread of the virus. The building was "well looked after" from the standpoint of maintenance, she said.

Paramedics will be offering testing to residents there on Thursday.

'It's a nightmare'

Tina Novak, president of the HDAA, said local landlords have enhanced sanitization, made masks mandatory and set up measures like elevator limits to protect residents.

But, she said, as the pandemic has stretched on people have become fatigued and their adherence to safety protocols has started to slip.

Novak said she's received complaints from staff and tenants expressing "fear and frustration" about people not wearing masks when checking their mail, trying to use common areas and crowding elevators.

"It's a nightmare because we don't have any support, we don't have any ability to enforce. Bylaw, they're busy with the businesses, so these buildings are kind of left to their own."

A man stares out at the street below from a Rebecca Towers balcony. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Naraghi said he was not surprised to learn about the outbreak, describing it as an "inevitable consequence" of factors including systemic issues with Ontario's vaccine rollout and lack of sufficient, paid sick days.

"People who are low income … have to go to work, often in the service industry or factories," he said. "They will take public transit, the risk of transmission increases as well."

Rebecca Towers is located in the L8R postal code, which has not been designated a hot zone for vaccinations in Hamilton.

Dania Majid, a staff lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said outbreaks in buildings are somewhat "common" and have been declared at sites in other larger cities such as Brampton and Mississauga.

"From a province-wide basis what we're seeing in Hamilton is really just one example of what we're seeing across hot spots across the province," she said.

While a large building may present extra challenges for a landlord, it's their responsibility to keep the site clean and sanitized, especially during a pandemic, Majid said.

The president of the Hamilton and District Apartment Association said she anticipates more COVID-19 outbreaks in buildings across the city. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Novak said there are ways the city and public health can help.

Information sessions on stopping the spread, visits from bylaw officers and offering mass vaccination clinics in common areas would all make a difference, she said.

"We're going to see it more. I have no doubt," she said of outbreaks in apartment buildings. "People have to take this seriously."

with files from Christine Rankin


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