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News >  Spokane

To prepare for coronavirus, Spokane officials working to find isolation sites

UPDATED: Fri., March 13, 2020

Jewels Helping Hands is one of several homeless services providers taking measures to prevent the spread coronavirus at its shelter on South Cannon Street. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jewels Helping Hands is one of several homeless services providers taking measures to prevent the spread coronavirus at its shelter on South Cannon Street. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane is exploring options to rapidly expand its capacity to isolate and quarantine people diagnosed with, or suspected to be infected with, coronavirus.

Though city leaders say the situation remains fluid, they could announce sites for a contingency isolation shelter or shelters in the coming days.

Signing a short-term lease on an isolation site remains one of several possibilities.

“There’s some immediacy to it, obviously,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington. “The immediate approach is to build some capacity in a temporary way, and then to expand on that capacity, should there be either a longer term or higher number required.”

The need for isolation space is a priority particularly within the region’s efforts to protect vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness, from the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that people who show symptoms of the disease, or may have been exposed to it, self-isolate or quarantine. But for some people, including those who are homeless, that is difficult or impossible.

“We do have some spaces available in our system. We’re trying to respond quickly, but it’s a lot of moving parts,” said Tija Danzig, a senior manager with the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services department.

Spokane leaders have looked to King County for guidance. King County, where 328 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and 32 have died, plans to build or buy four isolation and quarantine sites.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a $28 million funding package that will pay for the purchase of a vacant motel and installation of temporary dorms and trailers at three county-owned properties, according to The Seattle Times.

As for how the city would use the shelters, and what populations of people would be quarantined there, Danzig said it would follow the guidance of public health officials.

It’s not immediately clear what the capacity need of the city is, or what it will be as the coronavirus epidemic evolves. As of Friday, no one in Spokane County had tested positive for coronavirus. But health officials stressed this week that the virus likely is present in Spokane, just undetected.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said Friday he had not yet heard of the city’s considerations to identify an isolation facility but said he would “strongly support that.”

“By supporting appropriate shelter and distancing in that group (the homeless), it keeps the rest of the community healthy as well,” Beggs said. “They’re what I would call an at-risk population.”

Normally, the City Council would be required to sign off on the lease or purchase of a building. But if Mayor Nadine Woodward declares a civil emergency, she could circumvent normal procurement procedures under city law.

Cost remains an unknown. The Washington Legislature approved $200 million in emergency funds on Thursday to support the coronavirus response. President Donald Trump declared a nationwide state of emergency on Friday, potentially making $50 billion available in emergency funding.

Officials already are working to identify potential isolation space at existing providers. In the wake of a norovirus outbreak in 2016, Catholic Charities began building its new apartment buildings, such as the Donna Hanson Haven, with quarantine rooms that are equipped with showers.

“These specialized units will allow us to continue to serve individuals who are experiencing homelessness safely,” the nonprofit posted in a statement addressing coronavirus on its website.

As of Thursday, Jewels Helping Hands, which operates the city’s warming center on Cannon Street, had not served anyone it believes to be infected. The center, which hosts nearly 100 guests nightly, has been monitoring the temperature of its guests and screening for symptoms as they enter.

Catholic Charities also is screening its guests and has fully enacted its norovirus protocols, which include sleeping guests head-to-toe to increase distance between them.

“We’re taking it one day at a time and listening to direction from the health department,” said Rob McCann, CEO and president of Catholic Charities. “We still intend to serve our people. We are caregivers.”

When it battled an outbreak of norovirus in 2016, Catholic Charities erected a tent to quarantine the sick outside of its House of Charity shelter.

“We realized we never want to do that again, so we built all of these (quarantine units),” McCann said.

Jewels has given its patrons bandanas to put over their mouths in an effort to discourage face-touching and encourage proper coughing etiquette. It also has consistently been reminding guests of the importance of hand-washing.

“Our homeless population is one of the most vulnerable populations, mostly because of their living conditions and their lack of access to healthcare,” said Garcia, who fully expects the coronavirus to impact people who are homeless in Spokane eventually.

Homeless providers’ response began two weeks ago with the formation of a “city homeless services incident management team,” which includes representatives from shelters, permanent supportive housing projects, the health district and the city.

The team meets weekly and started its work by doing baseline assessments of the shelter and the supportive housing system’s capacity to respond to a flu pandemic.

Questions included the service providers’ ability to expand their operating hours, and whether or not they have isolation areas within their shelter or building.

“We’re trying to help coordinate and plan so we have some contingencies,” Danzig said.

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke, a reliable and vocal advocate for people who are homeless, called for the city to take the viruses’ potential impact on them seriously.

“It’s going to be very scary if we have people without shelter and without homes who are getting sick,” Burke said.

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