TORONTO — Variants of COVID-19 have now been found in five Toronto shelters and one homeless encampment, prompting calls for the vulnerable population to quickly be vaccinated against the virus.
Nine people at four shelters and four people who live in an encampment have screened positive for a COVID-19 variant, Toronto Public Health and city officials said this week.
Earlier this month, health officials said a variant had been found at the Maxwell Meighen Centre for the homeless, where 29 people have now tested positive for COVID-19. A round of mass testing took place at the centre on Tuesday.
“People in our sector are just as concerned as the regular population,” said Gord Tanner, the city’s director of homelessness initiatives and prevention services.
“With talk of a variant, that raises some fear and anxiety.”
Experts and health officials have said the spread of variants is concerning because they are far more contagious.
Those who have tested positive at the shelters and encampments have been moved to an isolation centre, where 105 of 150 rooms are occupied, the city said.
Residents at the Maxwell Meighen Centre are also now isolating in place, said Mary-Anne Bedard, the city’s general manager of shelter, support and housing.
“We’re working very closely with public health…to ensure we’re keeping isolation for the 120 people that remain on-site, and working with them to make sure that there’s as minimal as possible coming and going.”
Meanwhile, the city and the Unity Health hospital network have resumed a vaccination pilot program at several homeless shelters that was paused when the province experienced a drop in delivery of doses.
Dr. Holly Knowles, a family physician and part of the Unity Health team leading the vaccine pilot program, said it’s imperative to get the homeless population immunized fast.
“It’s truly a race against time in terms of getting into these sites and we’ve seen what happens when a variant hit the long-term care facility in Barrie, it can be devastating to that population,” Knowles said.
The variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom ripped through Roberta Place nursing home in Barrie, Ont., last month, killing 70 residents.
“We have to throw all hands on deck and get in there as quickly as we can,” Knowles said.
“Even to get a portion of that population some immunity, there’s a great chance they’ll have a milder illness or not contract the illness at all.”
The pilot program has fully vaccinated 55 residents and 34 staff at Scarborough Village Residence, a shelter for seniors. They’ve done first shots at Na-Me-Res Auduzhe, a shelter for Indigenous men, for 35 residents and 37 staff as well as first shots at Strathcona Hotel on 89 residents and 67 staff.
They have plans to vaccinate two more shelters soon, Knowles said.
They are also finalizing the “playbook” on how to best vaccinate those in shelters, which will be shared with the province, she said.
Toronto’s top doctor said Wednesday that shelter workers are set to be inoculated sometime in March.
Those who live in “high-risk congregate settings” — which Dr. Eileen de Villa said likely includes shelters — are due to be vaccinated in phase two of the province’s vaccine plan, set to begin in April.
Sarah Ovens, a social worker at All Saints Church Community Centre, said she’s worried about many of her clients who live at Maxwell Meighen.
Ovens said it is very difficult for shelter residents to truly isolate because they may have to leave a shelter for a variety of reasons that include meals and accessing various services.
She also said residents at Maxwell Meighen told her that as of last week they did not have access to a phone, computer or Wi-Fi, so they also come to All Saints for those services.
“It’s not easy to isolate when you live at a shelter, especially if you depend on community supports,” she said.