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'Help us': Rebecca Towers tenants call for vaccine clinic at building to combat outbreak

Only one elevator in the 17-storey highrise is working, the tenants say, and common areas aren't regularly cleaned.

68 people at the apartment building have tested positive, one person has died

A Rebecca Towers resident holds a sign asking for help on May 7, 2021. The building is currently in a COVID-19 outbreak that's infected 68 people since mid-March. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"Help us."

That was the message sprayed on a bed sheet hanging from a balcony at Rebecca Towers on Friday.

"Please save us from [the] petri dish," begged another.

A group of tenants at the apartment building is speaking out, urging the city to set up a mobile vaccination clinic in the highrise as soon as possible amid a COVID-19 outbreak that's infected 68 people.

"I'm scared," said Debra O'Neil, who has lived in the complex for 10 years.

"I don't understand why this building is not on a hot spot," she said. "We need vaccinations."

The Rebecca Towers tenant committee has written up a list of demands and concerns, sending it to Medallion, the company that owns the site, and Hamilton's medical officer of health.

The group says only one elevator in the 17-storey building is working and common areas aren't regularly cleaned.

The committee also says it rejects statements from public health that the spread of the virus within the complex is due to residents socializing.

"Tenants are also upset that the City of Hamilton knew about the rising case counts since March but did not inform us until May," the group said. "This is unacceptable."

WATCH | Tenants call for vaccines

'We need vaccines': Rebecca Towers residents speak out

CBC News Hamilton

1 month ago
0:59
Members of the Rebecca Towers tenant committee share their concerns following a COVID-19 outbreak in their building. 0:59

Statistics from public health on Friday showed 65 residents and three staff members have tested positive so far. One person has died.

The building is the site of the first outbreak declared at an apartment building in Hamilton.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said investigation revealed the virus, which has been found in 17 units and on 10 floors, spread through residents "caring" for one another and socializing.

The doctor mentioned, for example, people bringing groceries to neighbours or visiting tenants who live alone.

"Most of it I would characterize as really supporting one another, rather than frank socializing, but I'm not saying there wasn't any of that going on as well," she told councillors during a general issues committee meeting on Wednesday.

The tenant committee said it "reject[s]" that explanation, describing it as a "patronizing assessment" and an attempt by landlord Medallion to "escape liability."

A delivery person brings packages into Rebecca Towers. Paramedics were at the building on Thursday and Friday to test residents for COVID-19. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Medallion said it's in contact with public health and "adhering to any advice we receive in regards to the need for additional property management efforts, and any required communications to our residents."

While cases at the building date back to March, the outbreak was not declared until more than a month later, something residents have taken issue with and are demanding the city address.

O'Neil said they were only notified about the outbreak on May 3 through a letter from public health.

Serena Pollock has multiple sclerosis and has been isolating in her apartment since March. Now she said she's been told she can't attend her physiotherapy appointments until the outbreak is over and she's worried she won't be able to visit her doctor.

"I'm passed being pissed off," said the 51-year-old, questioning why public health didn't act sooner if cases at the building started appearing in March.

Richardson said case managers noticed the address, 235 Rebecca St., coming up repeatedly.

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.

1 working elevator, 17 storeys

Tenants say the building has only had one working elevator since the beginning of the year, demanding Medallion clarify if the other elevator is being renovated for cosmetic or safety reasons.

"Medallion should return both elevators to regular use as soon as possible," the committee said in a media release. "Having two elevators to service the 17 floors will go a long way to help with social distancing."

The committee also says a single cleaner is responsible for the entire building, meaning common areas such as the lobby, hallways, stairwells and elevator are not being cleaned regularly. They're also calling for hand sanitizer to be installed on every floor by the elevators.

The group is demanding that the landlord hire a team of cleaners and a security guard to limit who comes into the building and it wants windows in the hallways, which tenants say have been screwed shut, be opened to increase ventilation.

There are 38 active cases of COVID-19 at Rebecca Towers as of Wednesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In a brief statement, Danny Roth, a spokesperson for Medallion, said the company supports public health in the effort to control the outbreak, and will work to meet the needs of residents while following COVID-19 protocols.

He described the replacement of the building's elevators as "necessary."

"Property management will continue in its efforts to address any essential repairs, continue to ensure the good performance of all building systems, and meet the ongoing maintenance needs of our residents," Roth said.

Nasif Akbulut, another Rebecca Towers resident, estimated hundreds of people enter the building each day, touching door handles and elevator buttons.

"There are a lot of people here. If we do not act right now to get vaccinated it will … be getting bigger," he said, gesturing at the building next door and the neighbourhood around it.

Public health not considering L8R a hot spot

Richardson said the public health investigation did not point to any issues with maintenance, adding signs about stopping the spread of COVID-19 around elevators and laundry rooms "appeared to be working well" and cleaning was taking place.

"There is not any sort of other systematic issue," she said. "The building was well looked after from the standpoint of maintenance and those sorts of issues."

Rebecca Towers has 17-storeys and 164 units. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Paramedics were testing people for COVID-19 at the building Thursday, but the tenant group is asking for swabbing to also take place during the evening hours so people who work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. can take part.

It's also calling for L8R, the postal code for the high rise, to be designated a hot spot, and for a vaccine clinic to be set up so anyone 18 and older can get a shot.

Public health said it's not considering L8R a hot spot, instead asking people to be aware of vaccine eligibility for different groups so they can get a shot whenever they qualify.

Health officials also say paramedics were on site from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and will be there for the same hours Friday to ensure those who wanted to get tested can.

The tenant committee says those who live at Rebecca Towers are "working class people," many of whom have been working front-line jobs during the pandemic.

Emily Power, who does not live in the building, but works with the committee, said it's "shocking" the city has a system to track outbreaks in workplaces, but not apartment buildings, suggesting other outbreaks may be going on undetected.

If the committee's demands are not met, tenants are prepared to take "escalating actions," she said.

"If Medallion does what we ask, the landlord will save lives," Power said. "If the landlord does not do what we ask, we fear people will die."

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