The operator of an emergency shelter in Kelowna, B.C., said it was forced to house positive COVID-19 cases in the same room as the general population due to a shortage of hotel spaces.
Carmen Rempel, executive director at the Kelowna Gospel Mission, which runs the Doyle Avenue shelter in the city’s downtown core, described it as a “big, scary situation” a few weeks ago.
“We had one gentleman test positive for COVID and then he went into isolation, and Interior Health came by with their nurses and they did asymptomatic testing,” she said.
Testing among shelter residents with no symptoms, who volunteered to get the swab, showed 13 to 14 tests return positive.
“That’s one sample size of a shelter that has 50 people in that shelter, so we just went on the assumption that there were more positive cases besides those 13,” Rempel said.
Rempel said shelter staff worked with the Interior Health Authority (IHA) to separate the positive COVID-19 cases from the uninfected population within the shelter.
“We divided the shelter into a hot zone and cold zone as we waited for hotel rooms to become available so that our folks can isolate,” she said.
Rempel said a “crisis point” was reached when the two designated hotels — usually used to house COVID-positive shelter residents — were full.
“The hotel that was available for them to isolate in had no rooms left. So that’s when we divided the shelter into two portions and we worked extremely hard to get another hotel operational for isolation,” she said.
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Rempel said in the meantime, shelter staff did the best they could to keep positive and negative cases apart, such as separated bathrooms and food deliveries to the sleeping pods where COVID-positive residents were isolated in place.
“That was a tricky week.”
Rempel said the situation has since stabilized and the Doyle shelter is “COVID-free,” while the Leon Avenue shelter has been left “untouched” with zero known cases.
“We have not seen spread at all at the Leon shelter, which we’re very thankful for,” she said.
Rempel added that some people experiencing homelessness, who have tested positive for COVID-19, have been discharged from the hospital directly to the streets.
“We don’t have enough shelter spaces in Kelowna right now,” she said.
“Last week, it was reported that there was, at one point, 84 people who are assumed to be sleeping outside in Kelowna, and our shelters are full right now.”
Interior Health (IH) did not notify the public when the virus was spreading through Kelowna’s homeless population stating that an outbreak in the Central Okanagan had already been declared making everyone in the region aware of heightened COVID-19 cases in the community.
In an E-mail to Global News, IH stated that “a broader public notice was not required because it could further stigmatize these individuals, direct follow-up was happening with those involved, and there was not a broader public risk.”
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Rempel isn’t naive to the fact that a COVID-19 exposure event could occur again.
“It only takes one case to come into our shelter space and to see that spread really rapidly, especially because a good portion of them are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.”
Rempel said its most recent survey at the Leon shelter determined only 50 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated.
The Gospel Mission is working closely with Interior Health to try to get more shelter residents immunized, she said.
“They do asymptomatic testing for us. They also come with a handful of vaccines and anybody who’s interested in getting one can get one,” she said.
IH stated that it has been doing outreach immunizations for vulnerable people throughout the pandemic, adding that it saw a significant uptake in vaccinations over the last few weeks among people experiencing homelessness.
-With files from Klaudia Van Emmerik