Outbreaks grow in shelters as city, organizations play 'catch up'

·2 min read
Officials say shelters are becoming more crowded and that makes it more difficult to control the spread of COVID-19.
Officials say shelters are becoming more crowded and that makes it more difficult to control the spread of COVID-19.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images - image credit)

As Ottawa's network of shelters, respite centres and physical distancing centres reach capacity, outbreaks within the system continue to grow and support systems are left playing "catch up," trying to get them under control.

According to Ottawa Public Health's (OPH) COVID-19 dashboard, there are four active outbreaks at shelters across the city. While OPH does not list the names of shelters on its dashboard, cases at one in particular have continued to grow. Two weeks ago it reported 70 positive cases. There are now 108.

OPH also declared an outbreak at the physical distancing centre on Nicholas Street on Tuesday, with a number of workers and clients testing positive. In a memo to the city, OPH added that there have also been cases at the Dempsey Community Centre and Tom Brown Respite Centre.

Wendy Muckle, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, said it's unclear exactly why cases in the city's homeless shelters rise, but winter has brought "a different set of challenges."

With the colder weather, shelters have become more crowded and many staff are staying home because they're sick, Muckle said.

'We try as much as possible to distance people, although it's very tough in an overcrowded situation with this outbreak,' says Wendy Muckle, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health.
'We try as much as possible to distance people, although it's very tough in an overcrowded situation with this outbreak,' says Wendy Muckle, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health.

"It's been very difficult to catch up once you have an outbreak that's that significant," Muckle said.

As for emergency overflow physical distancing centres, Muckle said those too are getting full.

"They were set up at a time when we thought that they would have lots of extra capacity but the number of people entering the shelter system has really increased quite rapidly," she said.

"We're in that proverbial rock and a hard place at this point in time."

Testing within shelters

Ottawa Inner City Health and OPH are conducting tests at different locations throughout the week and are testing different groups within those locations to help curb the spread.

"The transient nature of the population and the ability of positive clients to self-isolate away from others will also contribute to the prolonged outbreaks," wrote OPH in a statement to CBC.

OPH says it's working closely with facilities experiencing outbreaks to implement disease control measures including enhanced cleaning, self-isolation for those who have tested positive and surveillance testing "to identify the extent of the outbreak."