Montreal

A false alarm: Montreal homeless man thought to be infected with COVID-19 wasn't

The director of Old Brewery Mission, Matthew Pearce, has been informed by Montreal public health that the man was not actually infected with COVID-19.

Man showed up at Old Brewery Mission looking for food 4 days after being taken into police custody

Homeless advocates in Montreal say the city's homeless people are struggling during the pandemic as everything is closed, including many centres dedicated to helping them. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

A Montreal homeless man who was allowed to wander the city's streets after he was believed to have tested positive for COVID-19 last week was not actually infected with the novel coronavirus.

On March 23, a homeless man was intercepted by Montreal police officers outside of the Old Brewery Mission. Shelter staff and the man were informed that public health authorities were looking for him because he had tested positive, and he was taken to hospital.

The public health agency did not confirm the case that day but said it was conducting an investigation into the matter.

The director of the mission, Matthew Pearce, has since been informed by public health officials that the man was never actually a positive case.

But when contacted by CBC News, neither Montreal's public health agency nor the police service would explain what had happened.

News that public health workers had allowed a homeless man who might have been contagious to walk the streets set off alarm bells — not just with the public at large, but with those working at food banks and shelters, who have been scrambling to care for one of the city's most vulnerable populations during the crisis.

Local state of emergency declared

Since that story broke last week, Montreal's administration has sprung into action.

Mayor Valérie Plante declared a local state of emergency on Friday because of concerns that the coronavirus is spreading to the estimated 3,000 people who live on the city's streets, saying they "need resources, and they need them now."

Among a series of measures aimed at keeping that population safe, the city vowed to establish new shelters, in addition to the previously announced plan to convert the old Royal Victoria Hospital into an isolation unit for homeless people who are infected or suspected of being infected.

But while all that was happening, the supposedly infected homeless man showed up again at the Old Brewery Mission in search of food at the end of the week.

Nobody at the shelter had been informed that, in the end, the man was not positive for the virus, Pearce said.

"People at our place were kind of spooked, like a spectre was showing up at our front door," he said, but then the man told staff he had ended up testing negative — a story staff struggled to believe.

"We simply assumed that was what he was saying to get access to a bed."

Shelter staff contacted public health officials. They confirmed the man was hospitalized for three days, and he tested negative each day, Pearce said.

Pearce said it's still not clear if the first test was a false positive or if there was a breakdown in communication with police.

"It's very strange. It's such a weird thing," said Pearce.

With files from Matt D'Amours

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