UPDATE: On Nov. 27, the Edmonton Convention Centre shelter had 22 positive COVID-19 cases in staff and clients. Capacity was lowered to 168 beds, keeping 18 for isolation.
A COVID-19 outbreak was declared Thursday at the temporary 24/7 accommodation at the Edmonton Convention Centre.
There are currently 11 confirmed positive cases from the ECC, said Caitlin Beaton, director of community programs and services at Bissell Centre.
The ECC was notified last week by the Edmonton Isolation Facility, which is run by Boyle McCauley Health Centre, that a person there tested positive.
“They’d been at the Edmonton Convention Centre during their transmissible period prior,” Beaton said.
“They hadn’t been at convention centre when they had symptoms, but the 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms is usually when they’re infectious and they had been in our facility at that time.”
Two people with symptoms were taken to the Royal Alex Hospital, she said, but the others, “as far as we know, they’re isolating… They have symptoms but are doing well.”
The downtown facility (formerly known as the Shaw Conference Centre) was converted into a shelter space on Oct. 30 and is run by four partner agencies Bissell Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, The Mustard Seed and Bent Arrow Healing Society.
In its first week, the temporary homeless shelter was seeing an average of 317 people daily. The facility is expected to remain open until March 31, 2021.
Those who tested positive “were immediately taken to an isolation space in the facility, before being moved to the Edmonton Isolation Facility” run by Boyle McCauley Health Centre. “Contact tracing was immediately undertaken,” Bissell Centre said in an emailed statement.
Beaton explained the ECC uses an app when clients check in and out. Their bed assignment is also logged. When someone tests positive, ECC staff can figure out who was nearby and thus, a close contact. An alert is placed on an individual who tests positive and then staff can notify the close contacts of the test result and provide them with information on isolating and being tested.
“Right now, with the amount of transmission we’re seeing in the vulnerable homeless population, the system capacity to allow people to isolate — who have either tested positive or who are close contacts — has reached its limits,” Beaton said.
The isolation centre has about 65 beds but capacity fluctuates and people come in and out on a regular basis. Beaton said it was full all this week and agencies are working on surge capacity plans.
There are another 200 people on the inner city close contact list, Beaton said.
“As we start to identify those people and as they start to potentially develop symptoms, we are limited in terms of where people will go.”
Boyle Street said the isolation facility is prioritizing COVID positive cases, which it still has room for, but that means close contacts (who do not yet have positive tests but are still required to isolate) are being moved to other locations.
The agencies have been following all Alberta Health orders and measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include “mandatory screening at the entrance, temperature checks and a questionnaire.”
Additional precautions put in place include “enhanced cleaning, signage with distancing reminders and the use of personal protective equipment when responding to overdoses and other medical emergencies. Masking and distancing will continue to be enforced among participants,” Bissell Centre said.
Beaton said the minimum Alberta Health requirement for shelters is that cots be at least one metre apart.
Since it opened, ECC has been placing cots two metres apart.
“We proactively put measures in place knowing that an event like this would likely occur,” she said.
Organizations said key services will continue despite the outbreak, including day shelter and meal services, overnight shelter, medical services, overdose prevention, cultural supports and housing supports.
Non-essential programming has been suspended for two weeks and “further adjustments to services may be made.”
“Protecting the health and safety of clients and staff at the temporary accommodations for individuals experiencing homelessness is of the highest priority. Operators will continue to work with Alberta Health Services to ensure the safety of clients, staff and the broader community.”
Edmonton’s interim city manager was asked about shelter space and capacity during a news conference on Wednesday.
Adam Laughlin said the city is still in ongoing talks with the province about expanding isolation spaces.
He said some shelter facilities are able to space sleeping cots two metres apart, while others don’t have enough space and have only 1.5 metres between cots.
“Some are able to offer the two-metre spacing, some are not. With cases rising, it’s a concern.”
“As folks know, the number of homeless exceed the space that’s available. So we have to find that right balance,” Laughlin added.
He thanked all the social agencies who are working hard — in the middle of a pandemic — doing this important work.
“I want to applaud the agencies and the great folks they have working… amazing under these circumstances.”