Is the NWT’s response to a Covid-19 shelter exposure adequate?
As dozens of people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife have been exposed to Covid-19, some people say the territory’s response has been inadequate while others praised the government for taking rapid action.
Amid the latest Covid-19 outbreak in the NWT – the largest to date with a current total of 262 active cases among residents – the territory’s chief public health officer announced last Friday people who slept overnight at the Salvation Army men’s shelter between August 15 and 19 were exposed to Covid-19. Anyone affected was told to self-isolate for 10 days and get tested.
A former shelter worker, who spoke to Cabin Radio on the condition of anonymity, said there was a “mad scramble” to find staff and a place for people to isolate in response. Several hotel rooms at the Quality Inn are now being used to allow shelter users to isolate, but the former worker said that isolation centre has not been well organized and it’s putting people at risk.
“This is very concerning that this thing is getting slapped together last minute,” they said.
“It’s a bit of a mess and it just really concerns me as someone who obviously really cares about this population but also just the impact that this could have.”
The territory’s health and social services authority told Cabin Radio 35 people had to self-isolate or self-monitor as a result of the exposure at the Salvation Army. At it’s peak, approximately 65 people were isolating at the Quality Inn. Currently 30 people are isolating there but the authority said it was “unable to breakdown” how many are related to the shelter exposure.
‘It didn’t need to be this way’
According to the former shelter worker, two staff members at the isolation centre have now tested positive for Covid-19, and they are worried the number of infections could rise.
“This can really get out of hand really quick,” they said. “I just feel like it’s really messy and it didn’t need to be this way.”
The territory’s health and social services authority said it would not provide information about Covid-19 cases at the Quality Inn for privacy reasons. Cabin Radio was unable to independently verify that staff members had tested positive.
To date, there are 39 active cases of Covid-19 in Yellowknife, including one non-resident. The territorial government announced on Wednesday that community spread has started in the city and all public spaces should be considered exposure sites.
Another resident contacted Cabin Radio to express concern that they witnessed a large number of people sharing cigarettes, food and drinks, and not socially distancing outside of the Quality Inn.
The former worker said when the new isolation centre was started there were a lack of policies and procedures in place and staff had to quickly adapt to working in a new environment. They confirmed there have been issues with people leaving isolation.
Protections measures are in place, health authority says
The authority said the isolation centre has Covid-19 protection measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 including single occupancy rooms, onsite testing, education on healthy practices, symptom checks, and staff are required to wear personal protective equipment. It also said it has made efforts to increase vaccination uptake among the homeless population throughout the NWT’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, including offering vaccines to those now isolating.
“We offer education to those accessing these services and work with enforcement staff from ProtectNWT in cases where further enforcement actions are required,” the authority stated in an email. “Staying in the isolation centre is voluntary for people who are named as contacts as Covid-19.”
The authority said it has taken other steps to “provide amenities that support clients to isolate comfortably” including wellness kits, books, beads, craft supplies, calling cards, and meeting individual requests for personal items.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, health officials and advocates have said that people experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the disease.
As a result, capacity has been reduced at shelters across the territory and the NWT government set up an isolation centre for people experiencing homelessness at Aspen Apartments on 51 street in Yellowknife. That was closed in April, however, as the health authority said occupancy had only been “intermittent” with a total of 15 people staying in the available 34 units since the beginning of 2021. The authority said a transition to hotel-based isolation was a better use of resources.
The former shelter worker noted having the isolation centre at Aspen Apartments meant there was dedicated staff and space available and policies in place in case there was an outbreak among the homeless population in Yellowknife. They questioned why the territory did not better prepare for the current outbreak given the prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta variant in Canada and knowing that a fourth wave of infections could hit the NWT.
“In a lot of ways, they’ve kind of created their own crisis,” they said, noting that they don’t blame staff.
NWT responded rapidly, Salvation Army says
Jason Brinson, executive director of the Salvation Army in Yellowknife, said as soon as Covid-19 exposure was identified among shelter users, public health and the Salvation Army took rapid action.
“We know that Covid getting into any close knit population could have drastic effects,” he said.
“We’re thankful for the rapid action of health and social services, public health, to keep those most vulnerable protected.”
The shelter was closed for a few days and staff were screened by public health while shelter users were put into isolation, Brinson said. The shelter is now reopen.
“We’re happy that it was caught quick enough and contained, presumably,” he said. “That’s the thing about Covid, is we just don’t know what tomorrow brings with it.”