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Kelowna agencies collaborate to tackle COVID-19 spike in homeless population

Outbreaks or exposures at shelters were not recorded on Interior Health’s list of public exposures
Kelowna’s Gospel Mission. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)

While now under control, a recent surge in COVID-19 cases among those experiencing homelessness in Kelowna resulted in a number of agencies scrambling and collaborating to mitigate the situation.

Dr. Silvina Mema, a medical health officer with Interior Health (IH), estimates that there were at least 130 positive cases of the virus within Kelowna’s homeless population between mid-August and the end of September.

Despite the spike in cases, outbreaks or exposures at various homeless shelters were not recorded on IH’s list of public exposures.

“We don’t have to post it unless we feel that there is a risk to the public,” said Mema. “If we felt that the general public was at risk, we would definitely post it and we do that.”

She explained that outbreaks at long-term care homes and daycares, for example, are posted on the list of public exposures because there are guidelines for declaring outbreaks at licensed facilities. Schools, homeless shelters and workplaces, she added, do not meet the threshold for declaring public outbreaks.

“The flip side is that when you announce something like this and highlight something like this, it can create harm for these individuals. They begin to be discriminated against, the providers that work at the shelters will be scared, they won’t come to work,” she said.

“They were aware that they were cases, but we don’t need to inflame or overdo it when we felt like we had a good grasp of the situation. We had it under control.”

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A positive case of the virus at the Kelowna Gospel Mission’s Doyle Avenue shelter in early September prompted staff to isolate the individual in a hotel room.

“But IH came and did asymptomatic testing of anybody who was willing or wanted to get tested,” said Carmen Rempel, the executive director of Kelowna’s Gospel Mission.

Of the 14 people who were tested, 13 tested positive for the virus, Rempel said.

“The problem was that this was a tipping point for COVID in Kelowna because the hotel that was provided — those 28 hotel rooms for folks to isolate in — were full,” she said. “They were already full, so we had no place to put them.”

The shelter was tasked with deciding whether to shelter the infected individuals or leave them outside on the street. The Mission went with the former and collaborated with IH to divide the shelter into two zones: a hot zone for those infected and a cold zone for those who weren’t sick with the virus.

“IH came along and they continued to do asymptomatic testing twice a week. We had more positive cases pop up,” she said.

As asymptomatic testing was conducted, vaccines were also rolled out. Similar hot and cold zones were also set up at shelters grappling with a spike in cases. Meanwhile, the Mission worked with BC Housing to secure an additional 10 hotel rooms for isolation purposes.

“Now we don’t have the need anymore to have folks isolating inside the shelters. We actually now have enough hotel rooms,” said Rempel.

Based on an informal, verbal survey at the Gospel’s Leon Avenue shelter, she estimates that 50 per cent of clients have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

She confirmed that the Mission is clear of COVID-19, and Mema said that the situation is under control, thanks to the efforts of all groups.

“It’s been an incredible experience. As much as it’s difficult and not a situation any of us want to be in, I’m amazed at the collaboration by BC Housing, IH and service providers in town,” said Rempel.

“It’s unprecedented collaboration. It’s extraordinary.”

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