Ottawa

Vaccine 'only way out' as COVID-19 marches through shelter system

The head of one of Ottawa's largest shelters is calling for people who live and work in the shelter system to be prioritized for vaccination as COVID-19 cases continue to spread.

6 active outbreaks, dozens of cases since January

A client stands outside of Shepherds of Good Hope, one of six Ottawa shelters that's dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The head of one of Ottawa's largest shelters is calling for people who live and work in the shelter system to be prioritized for vaccination as COVID-19 cases continue to spread.

Deirdre Freiheit, president and CEO of the Shepherds of Good Hope, said they've been dealing with outbreaks at the King Edward Avenue shelter since January.

They're not alone: there are six active shelter outbreaks, according to Ottawa Public Health's COVID-19 dashboard, and there have been 198 cases and one resident death since early January.

Four of those outbreaks were detected in the last five days of January alone.

"The only way out of this completely is for people to get vaccinated," Freiheit said.

"We need to prioritize getting our population — the people who [use] our services as well as our staff — getting the vaccine as quickly as we can."

While OPH does not list the names of shelters on its dashboard, the Ottawa Mission, the Salvation Army, Cornerstone Shelter for Women and the Shepherds of Good Hope have all confirmed by email they're in the midst of outbreaks.

Freiheit said while the shelter system was taking precautions and preparing for outbreaks, it's hard to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as people who are homeless can't easily self-isolate.

She said many people in the shelter system are also at higher risk of hospitalization because of health issues that may be related to their lack of housing.

"Somebody who is 50 [and in the shelter system] probably has the medical constitution of a 70-year-old," she said.

The city converted the Tom Brown Arena into a respite centre for people experiencing homelessness and then, in response to outbreaks at city shelters, began allowing overnight stays. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Issue raised at health board

Earlier this week, Coun. Shawn Menard raised the issue at the Ottawa Board of Health after a confirmed case at the Tom Brown Arena respite centre, which is accepting people who can't be accommodated at the shelters.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said the city is both providing space for high-risk contacts to isolate and performing surveillance testing across the shelter system.

"I do have confidence it will be brought under control," Etches said. "It is an ongoing process. It will take some time."

The city's COVID-19 vaccination information page says people who live and work in congregate settings like shelters are part of the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which is slated to start in March.

That phase also includes people 80 and older, front-line workers and other communities at greater risk from the disease.

The city is providing a range of supports to the "hard-hit" shelter system, said Christopher Tuck of the Ottawa Human Needs Task Force in a statement.

They include opening three daytime respite centres, converting the Ottawa Jail Hostel into a temporary isolation centre and adapting the Tom Brown Arena respite centre to also allow for overnight stays, Tuck said.

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