Concern for Downtown Eastside after U.S. tests find asymptomatic COVID-19 outbreaks among homeless

A man walks past a COVID-19 alert sign in Vancouver's downtown eastside Thursday, March 26, 2020. The large amount of homeless living on the streets in the DTES and lack of social distancing may result in a easy spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Advocates for B.C.’s homeless population say the surprising results of COVID-19 testing among Boston’s homeless add new urgency to the need for housing.

Health workers in Boston were surprised when testing of all more than 350 residents at one shelter earlier this month revealed that more than 140 people staying there had the coronavirus — all of them asymptomatic.

Tests at two other Boston shelters found similar rates of asymptomatic infection.

READ MORE: Homeless activists arrested after occupying Vancouver elementary school over COVID-19

“Initially we didn’t think there was any asymptomatic spread, or maybe a small percentage of people may be spreading it asymptotically,” said Jim O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless.

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“As we’ve been looking around, I think everywhere there is probably asymptomatic spread.

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“If you or I were asymptomatic we would go home and spread it to our family, we wouldn’t spread it to 500 people in a shelter. So I think the more people you’re near, more the asymptomatic transmission of the virus becomes an acute and urgent issue.”

READ MORE: ‘Assume it’s here’: Advocates urge action as COVID-19 reported in Downtown Eastside

There are at least 3,600 homeless people in the Lower Mainland, and more than 6,000 province-wide.

Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but health officials have yet to offer any statistics on how many of B.C.’s homeless may have contracted it.

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Union Gospel Mission spokesperson Jeremy Hunka called the Boston results “very concerning,” though he said the science of asymptomatic transmission remains unclear.

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“Testing, more testing would definitely be welcomed by a lot of people in the DTES and among the homeless community,” he told Global News.

Hunka said the results added new urgency to the task of finding housing solutions for homeless people that allow them to isolate.

READ MORE: Two Vancouver community centres to be used as homeless shelters in COVID-19 crisis

“These are people who are valuable and who are vulnerable,” he said, noting that many services that normally support the city’s homeless have closed due to the pandemic.

“They are by far some of the most exposed individuals to COVID-19 because they don’t have a place to self-isolate. They’re on the streets, they’re in public all the time, so literally they’re at risk 100 per cent of the time.”

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British Columbia has managed to secure about 900 spaces in hotels and community centres for the province’s homeless, but Hunka said it needs to find more, and faster.

The City of Victoria has urged the province to use its emergency powers to requisition more hotel rooms to get people off the streets.

On Monday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry hinted the province would reveal details of a “coordinated plan that provides the housing that is needed for those who need it” in the coming days.

READ MORE: Advocate warns of ‘catastrophic’ human cost without urgent coronavirus action for DTES

“All of government has been looking at how do we address these issues across the province in a systematic, planned, coordinated way,” said Henry.

“As I’ve said many times, we have two emergencies that we are dealing with and the one — our overdose crisis — has been compounded in many ways … by the the restrictions that we’ve put in place to deal with the pandemic.”

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