‘We have a very narrow window of opportunity to get ahead of this’: Dozens of COVID-19 variant cases detected in Toronto’s homeless population

·3 min read

More than a dozen new cases of COVID-19 variants have been detected within Toronto’s homeless population, including individuals linked to shelters, respites and encampments, as one downtown shelter battles a variant outbreak that as of Monday had swollen to 29 cases.

The outbreak at the Salvation Army’s Maxwell Meighen Centre, at Sherbourne and Queen Streets, was first reported in early February, and shortly afterwards, became the first shelter site in Toronto to report a variant case — though the exact strain was yet unknown.

Since the city confirmed the outbreak was at 29 cases, 13 others have screened positive for a variant in the homeless population. Two were linked to the Good Shepherd, two to the Birkdale family shelter, two to a drop-in at 129 Peter St., three to Fred Victor’s Adelaide Resource Centre for Women, and four cases were among people who aren’t connected to a specific site.

Dr. Andrew Bond is medical director of Toronto’s Inner City Health Associates, which is helping to manage the Meighen outbreak, as it did during an earlier outbreak at the same facility in the pandemic’s first wave.

“It was totally preventable and avoidable to have been seeing this,” said Bond.

Advocates and physicians who work with homeless patients have asked the province to make vaccinating that population a higher priority. A recent study shows that Ontario’s homeless are more than 10 times more likely than others to require intensive care for COVID-19, and roughly five times more likely to die within three weeks.

One death has been linked to an outbreak at 129 Peter St., but a city spokesperson said they were believed to have died of an overdose, with the virus detected post-mortem.

If the variant spreads further through the system, Bond said he believes the city could see more fatalities.

“I think it’s unfortunately the predictable consequence of this,” he said.

With variants reported to spread faster, Bond is also concerned about shelter outbreaks growing in size, and surpassing the capacity of the city’s isolation facilities. When dozens were moved from Maxwell Meighen to isolation, he said nearly all were within one 24-hour period.

Though the exact variant detected at Maxwell Meighen is still being determined, Bond suspects it’s the B.1.1.7 strain, which research suggests is still compatable with vaccinations. There were 70 cases of B.1.1.7 reported across Toronto as of Monday compared with just one case of a Brazilian variant.

Neither Bond nor Larry Giffin, the head of a CUPE local representing Maxwell Meighen staff, alleged missteps by the Salvation Army leading to the outbreak. Giffin noted that stressed-out staff had reported more concern with occupants who pushed back about masking rules.

At Maxwell Meighen, some men stay in shared rooms. When COVID-19 hit, occupancy was lopped from 363 to 256. The site is now closed to new arrivals, with 121 people left. The plan is to screen residents daily, and test staff and residents every three to five days, the city said.

(The Salvation Army declined interview requests, saying its focus was the “task at hand.”)

A memorandum to homelessness service providers about variants on Tuesday said shelter staff should ideally “choose to work” at only one shelter location — and that measures to reduce the movement of staff and clients between sites was “strongly encouraged wherever possible.”

Staff will now be required to wear face shields or goggles with medical masks, while occupants would be mandated to wear either medical or three-layer cloth masks.

The memo also highlighted the push from Bond’s organization and others to make vaccinations for the homeless a priority, and noted that would happen once “supply becomes available.”

To Bond, the presence of variants in the system means a clock is now ticking.

“We have a very narrow window of opportunity to get ahead of this.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star