(Jacob Barker/CBC - image credit)
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has ordered the Downtown Mission to stay closed because of a major COVID-19 outbreak as the city moves to open an emergency shelter to help house those affected.
The Mission had already closed its two main facilities voluntarily last week, but the new order makes the closures mandatory.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, said the Mission will be allowed to operate for existing clients at the former Windsor Public Library central branch building on Ouellette Avenue. The Mission started temporarily operating out of the former library location last week.
An emergency shelter is now being set up to operate out of the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre, which will be staffed by multiple community agencies as well as the Downtown Mission. Once that site is ready to take in clients, the emergency shelter at the former library site will be shut down and all of the mission's locations will be closed temporarily, CBC News has learned.
It's expected to open on Wednesday.
According to the city, the Canadian Red Cross dropped off 73 cots, blankets, pillows and hygiene kits on the weekend. Partitions, walls and measuring were being added Monday to ensure physical distancing.
Executive director of the Downtown Mission Ron Dunn told CBC News Monday that the support from the community has been really helpful and he feels that they acted as quickly as they could given the situation.
"I don't think anyone dragged their heels. I think this is an ever-changing, moment-by-moment situation," he said. "I'm proud of the effort that the mission has made and that our partners have come around to help us with."
Dunn said the move to the former library location was always the shelter's outbreak plan, but now they realize they are in need of more space and community help to contain the spread.
The Mission's 20 staff members that work to support people are off sick and Dunn said only one kitchen staff member remains.
"The work continues, it has to, we've not missed a meal or a night sleep for anyone who's wanted it ... It's challenging there's no doubt," he said.
"My staff have been doing an excellent job of doing their job, balancing the need for protective measures with the need of people and there is no one answer, magic bullet, these are people, they're not cattle and we need to treat them respectfully and we need to continue to give them the things they've come to depend on us for, food and shelter and clothing."
Vice-president of external affairs for Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare, Bill Marra, says the hospital is one partner overlooking the transition and offering staff.
"We spent the last number of days, identifying strategies that should be implemented to address the outbreak, manage it, mitigate the risks, protect the guests and clients that go to the Downtown Mission [and] protect the staff there as well," Marra said.
He added that the aquatic centre is an "ideal" location because it's spacious, has rooms to separate people, kitchens, bathrooms and showers.
The centre has been closed during the pandemic with pools drained of water and programming has been paused.
Hotel Dieu is also working in partnership with the several other community organizations to provide oversight on proper personal protective equipment use and infection prevention and control.
Ahmed said he was issuing the order due to the number of cases and the continued risk of transmission "to ensure that all appropriate measures are in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread at the shelter," he said.
The City of Windsor operates an isolation and recovery centre for people that do not have a home but have been ordered to isolate. That centre reached capacity shortly after outbreaks were declared at the Downtown Mission and the Salvation Army.
The outbreak at the mission was declared on Feb. 11, and 70 cases have been diagnosed among clients and staff overall, Ahmed said.
Windsor's Salvation Army is also experiencing an outbreak, which was declared on Feb. 14. As of Monday, the homeless shelter told CBC News in an email that there are nine active cases, but are waiting on more test results to return.
As a result of these outbreaks, the city's community development and health commissioner Jelena Payne said the isolation and recovery centre went from having no one to being full in a matter of three days. This meant that more space was needed to accommodate those who were testing positive, she said.
"The community partners have had to mobilize to create a plan B and then a plan C and the order that was given by the health unit is what really triggered the requirement for the aquatic centre," she said.
Assisted Living Southwestern Ontario, Family Services Windsor-Essex, Windsor's Canadian Mental Health Association, The Canadian Red Cross and the City of Windsor will have staff at the aquatic centre to offer support services for people who need emergency shelter.