With temperatures dropping and many local homeless people seeking somewhere warm to spend their nights, many are wondering what's being done to keep COVID-19 at bay for this vulnerable population, especially after outbreaks were declared at local shelters.
The Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission, Elizabeth Fry Society Simcoe Muskoka and The Busby Centre emergency shelters are currently under COVID-19 outbreak.
As of today (Nov. 19), the Elizabeth Fry Society has three active COVID cases in the local shelter, while The Busby Centre has nine, according to Elizabeth Fry Society Simcoe Muskoka executive director Meaghan Chambers and Busby Centre executive director Sara Peddle, who provided a joint statement to BarrieToday to update the situation.
The two organizations are co-located in an undisclosed Barrie motel and are considered one outbreak location under Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit reporting.
BarrieToday did not receive a response from The Salvation Army for this story.
Although some local shelters have begun to transition back to their facilities, both the Elizabeth Fry Society and The Busby Centre plan to remain in the current hotel shelter model until public health officials determine it is safe for them to return to their home locations.
“Along with increased shelter bed capacity, there is space within (the) hotel shelter for participants to distance and quarantine as needed," Peddle and Chambers said in their statement. "Both organizations have strong preventative practices in place to lessen and prevent internal spread of COVID-19 within the shelter and we are following all public health guidelines from an infection prevention and control perspective, as recommended for congregate settings.”
The two shelter directors told BarrieToday both organizations intend to continue to operate from the current hotel model, noting it's designed to help mitigate and manage a COVID outbreak among people experiencing homelessness. Both organizations also continue to work closely with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre's infection prevention and control team to mitigate further spread among the sheltered and unsheltered population in Barrie.
“Elizabeth Fry Society and The Busby Centre conduct daily COVID-19 screenings with all participants and staff while diligently monitoring for any new or worsening symptoms, tracing any known close contacts of those who test positive with the virus, are facilitating access to testing and provide a designated space to isolate as directed by public health,” Chambers and Peddle said.
The Busby Centre and Elizabeth Fry Society are also taking in anyone from the unsheltered population who tests positive for COVID-19 to ensure they have a safe space to isolate, they said.
"As determined by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, both organizations are temporarily unable to intake anyone new without COVID-19 into the shelter programs," Peddle and Chambers added in their statement.
The Barrie Community Health Centre and County of Simcoe Paramedics are also supporting the organizations in outbreak by providing weekly on-site testing and health clinics for participants.
“An outbreak of COVID-19 was not completely preventable, but with adequate space, infection prevention measures and personal protective equipment, an outbreak can be managed to reduce further spread within the population experiencing homelessness and our employees,” Peddle and Chambers stated.
Both organizations say they plan to expand shelter capacity over the winter months to offer a combined total of 198 shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness in the region.
The decision to accept people who have tested positive for COVID into the shelter was simple, Peddle noted in an email to BarrieToday earlier this week.
“They have nowhere else to go and they need somewhere to isolate,” she said, adding they work with local public health partners daily to put the best practices in place to try to ensure no one else gets sick.
The organization also has a higher percentage of staff who are double vaccinated and even some with boosters, Peddle noted.
In an email to BarrieToday, a health unit spokesperson said that due to the nature of the services shelters provide, they have unique vulnerabilities as they are not covered by the rules for areas or provincial directives for some key outbreak prevention tools, such as active screening and vaccination policies.
“However, these gaps have existed throughout the pandemic, so it is unclear what factors contributed to the start of this outbreak,” the spokesperson added.
Greg Bishop, general manager of social and community services with the County of Simcoe, told BarrieToday that three local shelters continue to use the hotel shelter model, while two others transitioned back to their home facilities earlier this fall.
The hotel model, he explained, was funded by the provincial and federal governments through the Provincial Social Services Relief Funding (SSRF) and enhanced federal Reaching Home (RH) funding programs.
“This fully supported the diverse needs of vulnerable populations throughout the pandemic and ensured the county could support emergency shelter providers to establish the temporary motel model to protect vulnerable people’s health and safety," he said.
“The County of Simcoe continues to work closely with emergency shelter providers and community stakeholders to meet emerging needs within the homelessness services system," Bishop added.
Since March 2020, Bishop noted 2,227 individuals in Simcoe County have received support from emergency shelters.
“Within the context of the provincial Roadmap to Reopen Ontario, the County of Simcoe continues to work with partners, including public health, to plan the transition from the motel model to community shelters," he said.
— With files from Bob Bruton