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COVID-19: Shelter boss says Omicron pressuring capacity, health in Hamilton’s homeless facilities

The CEO of Hamilton's Good Shepherd Centre says the latest wave of the pandemic is putting pressure on capacity limits and the health of staff. Global News

Cold weather, encampment tear-downs and COVID-19 outbreaks are just a couple of recent developments keeping Hamilton’s shelters busy according to the chief of a noted Hamilton agency.

Brother Richard MacPhee, the Good Shepherd’s chief executive officer, says keeping residents experiencing homelessness and staff healthy amid the Omicron wave of the pandemic is going to be “challenging” over the next few months with capacity waning.

“It’s a tsunami,” MacPhee said.

“We’re so busy right now with different outbreaks and the number of homeless folks that are staying in our shelters.”

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So far, MacPhee says, Good Shepherd’s resources are holding up in terms of mitigating the volume, which includes 100 men at the former Cathedral High School site, originally earmarked for closure in July.

Two hotels in the city are also beginning to fill up: one in the city’s northwest earmarked for 50 women and another now housing 40 families.

Compounding the problem is the spread of Omicron, the new COVID variant, which has posted 21 cases in the city’s largest men’s shelter, the Salvation Army’s Booth Centre.

On Friday, the facility lowered its 82-bed cap and halted admissions to deal with the surge.

Prior to the pandemic, the city’s emergency shelter capacity was 341 spaces. Capacity was expanded in late 2021 to 548 with the city creating 207 more spaces amid the clearing out of a number of encampments across the city.

The breakdown includes 250 spaces at four different locations for men, 96 for women, 80 family and 21 youth. Overflow capacity — for single men and women when all sectors are at capacity — is just over 100.

Read more: Emergency shelter services expanded in Hamilton while COVID-19 still a threat

Hamilton’s emergency operations centre (EOC) director confirmed on Monday afternoon most city spaces are at or nearing capacity and that housing services is working with partners to improve capacity amid outbreaks at six locations.

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The city has employed “in situ” strategies for the time being — keeping infected COVID residents at sites they were assigned to but in isolation.

“Our housing services group is working with our shelter network and our partners who operate the shelters to identify ways to try to improve some of the capacity that’s available with respect to outbreaks,” said EOC boss Jason Thorne.

The potential for losing staff amid a surge is what could be particularly troubling, according to Good Shepherd’s CEO.

So far, staffing levels have not been as severely affected within’ shelters as compared to the city’s hospitals and facilities with seniors, which have seen as much as a third to half of employees off work to complete isolation protocols.

As of Jan. 9, only 14 out of 66 recorded cases in the six outbreaks involve workers, according to public health data.

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MacPhee says potential for asymptomatic individuals in the congregate setting carrying the more transmissible Omicron is the issue since it wouldn’t take long to “go through the system” if not detected.

“We’re seeing more and more of them, particularly mostly actually in their own families where COVID is rearing its head in their families,” said MacPhee

“Then that’s often forcing them to stay off work because they are positive and the challenges that’s bringing in terms of us staffing the facility.”

Amid the current wave, the city’s medical officer of health says outbreak teams have been working with shelter cases and have been assessing whether a aparticular indicidual should remain on site or be shipped off to an isolation site.

Read more: COVID-19: Forecast for Hamilton suggests latest wave more likely to ‘severely’ affect those 60-plus

“Some of them are still able to move people to the isolation facility, but in other cases, they’ve been able to work out a situation where they can isolate them appropriately on site,” Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said.

During a peak in the pandemic last March, the city boasted a pair of isolation sites combining for 55 spots between the Bennetto Community Centre on Hughson Street and Central Memorial Recreation Centre.

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On Monday, Thorne hinted that staffing shortages would likely hinder any potential to create new similar isolation locations.

“We did have the isolation shelter in place last year and we’ve been looking at whether or not there is additional capacity that we can provide,” said Thorne.

“The staffing shortages … do create a pressure in terms of bringing on any new facility in terms of shelter capacity.”

Since September, all demographics residing within the city’s system have been eligible for third COVID vaccine doses.

Hamilton’s Shelter health Network have been connecting the population with city health care providers using guidelines from the Ottawa’s ‘This Is Our Shot’ awareness campaign.

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