By Tim Kalinowski on December 19, 2020.
Alpha House has effectively addressed a recent COVID-19 outbreak at its Lethbridge homeless shelter, and continues to screen rigorously and provide quarantine options as needed, says the organization’s executive director Kathy Christiansen.
“A couple of weeks ago there was a first positive case identified at the shelter which put us into outbreak status,” she confirms. “Since March we have been preparing that this could happen, and certainly shelters across the province have been having to respond to outbreak scenarios. We have an outbreak plan, and we quickly had to implement it.”
That plan included procuring hotel rooms to isolate those who tested positive while providing them with 24/7 health care and support to manage withdrawal symptoms as they remained in isolation for 10 days. It also included setting aside a quarantine area at the shelter, says Christiansen, where those with symptoms could stay while awaiting further COVID-19 testing.
Christiansen confirms about 30 people remain in isolation, but not all those have tested positive. It is more of a precautionary measure.
Since the outbreak at the shelter, which had 17 confirmed positive cases as of Wednesday with 10 recovered, Christiansen says her Lethbridge staff have been aggressive in attempting to get potential transmission risks within the shelter itself under control. But there is only so much they can do, she admits.
“I think the biggest risk is not so much about transmission inside the shelter, but it is about sharing drinks, tobacco, pipes, and those types of things,” Christiansen says. “It is some of those social activities we see outside that can be brought into the shelter.”
As for reports of COVID fears among the homeless community keeping some outside, Christiansen says that is a natural response she would expect under the circumstances.
“It makes so much sense to me people would feel worried about that,” she acknowledges. “Hopefully, over time, that dissipates. Fear is a normal response, and confusion, and uncertainty. Those are all things we would anticipate, and I feel that would be a normal concern. We are working hard to appease those concerns.”
Christiansen is more concerned sleeping outside in cold weather and gathering in large groups to keep warm will increase the risk of exposure and sickness for those among the local homeless community.
“I think the risk of staying with each other in large groups outside is a greater risk for contracting COVID, but I also think even more serious is the risk of exposure in the winter could potentially be a much more serious health concern,” she says. “We (at Alpha House) continue to operate 24/7. We haven’t had to shut down because of this. We have just had to adjust our spacing of our mats. We are doing much more screening, and much more onsite testing. We do it weekly, and anyone who comes in who is symptomatic we put them into isolation right away; so we’re not allowing anyone to enter the general shelter population if they have any type of symptoms. But we do have an alternative space for them to go so we can respond to everybody.”
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