"Numerous" cases of COVID-19 have been identified in tent sites used by homeless people in Fredericton in the last couple of months, according to Dr. Sara Davidson of the Riverstone Recovery Centre.
Three people recently tested positive at the site near Government House, Davidson said.
Outreach workers and nurses from Riverstone have been going to tent sites around the city at least once a week, she said, to administer point-of-care, or rapid, COVID tests.
"Any word that someone has symptoms then we go out and we test everybody," she said.
When people have tested positive, the outreach workers have arranged followup PCR tests, and worked with the Red Cross to move those infected to isolation motels or the hospital, she said.
Medications and food are brought to them daily through their isolation period and follow-up testing is done on the fifth and tenth days of everyone at the site, she said.
Riverstone workers also communicate with Public Health to facilitate contact tracing, said Davidson, which is difficult for people living in tents.
Outreach workers are planning to return to the site Friday morning, she said, because the last time they went, it was too cold to administer the tests. A certain temperature range is required for the test to work, she said.
Transmission within the tent sites is a "huge" concern, Davidson said, because people are living in close proximity.
"No one can self-isolate when they're living outside congregately."
"One night, when we found someone who was COVID positive and we were arranging getting them to the motel, everyone was crouched around a campfire because it was freezing outside. It's not realistic to say, 'Go hide in your tents'."
On the positive side, a lot of the people that are outside in tents did get vaccinated in the summer, she said.
There have been a few cases, however, where people were "pretty sick" and had to be admitted to hospital.
It's getting harder for outreach workers to keep up with tenters, Davidson said, because some tent sites are being closed down and some people — particularly those who have past trauma — are scattering deeper into the woods.
The Fredericton Police Force is "consolidating" all tenters into two sites, said spokesperson Alycia Bartlett — one by the Victoria Health Centre and one along the Devon trail.
"This is to ensure that serving agencies can easily reach those who need help," Bartlett said in an email, "and for the city to maintain some degree of basic service to those living there (porta–potty and garbage collection)."
Police Chief Roger Brown declined to do an interview about the homeless tent situation.
The chief launched a pilot project earlier this year to allow small groups of tenters to stay in several sanctioned sites.
Now, any tent that's not in one of the two approved sites "is subject to being relocated," said Bartlett.
"Clients are to be offered a spot at one of the consolidated sites if that is practical and there is space.
"Any person living in a tent that cannot be transitioned to an approved site, or refuses to accept that option, will ultimately be moved along, but only after every effort has been made to connect them to available services."
The main goal, said Barlett, is to get people connected to services and off the streets for winter.
She confirmed that complaints have been received about the tents. Most of the complaints have been related to nuisance calls, she said, and unsanitary conditions.
As sites are shut down, city workers and contractors are cleaning them up, said Bartlett.
Two officers, Cpl. Ryan Kelly and Const. Mike Bamford, try to get to the sites daily, she said, or at least every other day.
With the recent spike in cases, they've paid specific attention to Public Health guidelines, she said, including wearing masks, using additional personal protective equipment when necessary and physical distancing.
Numbers not known
Bartlett said the police force does not have an estimate of the number of people living in tents in the city.
Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said Public Health doesn't have that number either, but the department is taking steps to reach out to people living on the streets.
"Our efforts to reach those experiencing housing insecurity is constantly ongoing, taking into consideration the transient nature of individuals with precarious housing, and the need to ensure this population has adequate access to testing, vaccination and items like masking and hand sanitizer," he said in an email.
"We are actively looking at opportunities to encourage and make testing available to people in various housing situations, and as we go forward, will work with local partners as part of an enhanced surveillance strategy to reach those experiencing housing insecurity."
CBC News also contacted the John Howard Society, which runs Housing First Services in the city, to find out the current number of names on the by-name list of homeless people, but no one responded.
Davidson said last she heard there were about 50 people still living outside.