Ottawa opens COVID-19 isolation and treatment centre for homeless

OTTAWA — A local recreation centre in Ottawa has become an isolation and treatment centre for homeless people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

The centre opened Monday near the city's Byward Market, which is a few blocks east of Parliament Hill. The facility has been filled with beds, linens, medical supplies and everything someone would need to serve out their isolation period.

Already, three people are expected stay there in isolation while they await test results.

The centre was set up because the national plan to fight COVID-19 doesn't apply to people who are homeless.

"The whole strategy is based on the assumption that people will seek care when they need it, and that they’ll self-isolate," said Wendy Muckle, president of Ottawa Inner City Health, which provides health care to the national capital's vulnerable population.

She said homeless populations may be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, and are likely to have worse outcomes because of underlying health conditions.

They're also less likely to seek help because many already have symptoms associated with virus, such as difficulty breathing, she said.

"There's no confirmed positive in the homeless community, but there will be," she said. "We feel pretty good that we got this set up before we had any confirmed cases."

It's also difficult to self-isolate in a crowded shelter.

During the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, providing a space for homeless people to self-isolate was easier because single rooms could be set aside within existing shelters. That has become more difficult because of the growing number of people relying on shelters or sleeping outside.

"Now you have people piled up like firewood in the shelters," Muckle said. "There's no space to put anybody."

The treatment and isolation centre will offer assessments by nurse practitioners and mental health workers, as well as 24-7 health services to those in isolation.

The idea is to test and treat people early to make sure the hospital isn't inundated with cases, Muckle said.

Inner City Health also has experience with managed alcohol and opiates programs, so people with addictions are less likely to leave the centre before their isolation is through.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness estimates as many as 35,000 people are homeless on any given night in Canada.

Other cities have taken steps to keep the novel coronavirus from running rampant through their homeless communities.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney pledged front-line workers, medicine and funding to help the homeless. The Edmonton Expo Centre has been set aside for overflow.  

Calgary is reducing the number of homeless allowed to stay at the shelters by 400 and moving many to hotels.

"We're developing quarantine spaces for people in that community who do have some symptoms and do have to be completely isolated," said Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

"For those who remain in the shelters we need to enforce much more physical distances, perhaps a space between people and maybe even barriers between people's sleeping quarters and I know that the shelters are undertaking that work right now."

Toronto, which already has a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the homeless community, has also set aside hotel rooms so homeless people have a place where they can isolate.

Muckle said what sets Ottawa apart is the integrated ways homeless people can get tested.

Inner City Health launched a mobile assessment van to test people in the community.

Typically, only people who are symptomatic and have recently travelled outside the country or been in contact with a confirmed case are tested for the virus in Ottawa. Those requirements have been relaxed somewhat for the homeless population.

They can also be assessed by paramedics and other homeless health outposts across the city in addition to the hospital and Ottawa's main assessment centre.

Muckle's group says several tests for homeless people have already been administered and people are still waiting for results.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.

—With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press