(Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
A downtown shelter for men is now closed to new admissions after 29 people at the facility tested positive for a COVID-19 variant of concern, the city reported on Monday.
The Maxwell Meighen Centre is funded by the city and operated by the Salvation Army on Sherbourne Street near Queen Street East.
In a news release, the city said shelter residents who tested positive for the variant have been sent to an isolation centre to recover. The city did not specify how many of the cases were residents and how many were staff members.
Toronto Public Health (TPH) has determined that people living at the shelter at the time of exposure are close contacts of those who tested positive and the residents who remain at the shelter are now in isolation.
A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the shelter on Feb. 3. Ten days later, the city reported that a person at the shelter had screened positive for a variant of concern. The case marked the first time a variant had been identified in the city's shelter system.
Testing for COVID-19 was conducted at the shelter last week after the first variant case was discovered and lab results have confirmed the new cases and the variant of concern mutations, the city said.
The actual strain of the 29 cases, however, is not yet known. The city said Public Health Ontario will conduct whole genome sequencing on the samples to identify the strain. Whole genome sequencing is a laboratory procedure that looks at the unique DNA fingerprint or pattern of an organism in order to identify it, according to PHO.
Mary-Anne Bédard, general manager of the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, said the outbreak is concerning given the presence of the variant.
"We take all cases of COVID-19 in the shelter system very seriously as the safety of staff and clients is our number one priority," Bedard said in an email on Tuesday.
"We know from working with Toronto Public Health that variants of concern are believed to be more transmissible, which is why we are working closely with them and The Salvation Army to take all steps to continue and enhance all COVID-19 safety measures," Bedard said.
These enhanced infection prevention and control measures include more cleaning, mandatory use of personal protective equipment and frequent hand washing, she added.
The Salvation Army will continue to screen all staff and residents daily for symptoms. Also, all staff and residents will be tested every three to five days. Residents who have symptoms or who test positive will be moved to the isolation centre.
Before the pandemic, the shelter had room for 363 male residents, but that capacity has been reduced to 256 because the city implemented physical distancing measures. The shelter currently has 121 residents.
"Capacity at the site has been significantly reduced to enable physical distancing and we are working with The Salvation Army to spread those remaining out even more using all available spaces," Bedard said.
According to the city, staff members at the shelter are working with public health officials to bring the outbreak under control, reduce the spread of the virus and provide "safe isolation" to everyone affected.
9 shelters now in outbreak in Toronto
Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health, said in a recent email to CBC Toronto: "TPH does not report on staff versus resident positive COVID-19 cases in Toronto shelters due to the small numbers of staff cases.
"While we appreciate the desire for more information, we must balance the public health reason to release the information requested and the individual's right to the protection of personal health information and right to privacy."
There are nine shelters with COVID-19 outbreaks in Toronto and there are 151 people connected to the shelter system who have tested positive for the virus as of Monday at 2 p.m.. One death has been reported at the city's Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, located at 129 Peter St.