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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

COVID-19 spread expected in Spokane shelters; officials working to mitigate it

Construction workers work on the roof of the Hope House, a new 120-bed women’s homeless shelter that also includes 60 units of permanent supportive housing, Thurs., Oct 29, 2020. Local officials warn coronavirus could spread in more shelters after an outbreak at one facility in Spokane.   (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Open Doors is the first Spokane homeless shelter to be hit with a COVID-19 outbreak, but health officials warned Thursday the disease will likely spread in other shelters in the coming weeks.

Of the 41 COVID-19 cases in Spokane in people experiencing homelessness since the pandemic began, 34 have been reported in the past two weeks.

That trend is alarming, but no surprise given the upward trajectory of cases communitywide.

A significant number of the new cases among people experiencing homelessness are at the Open Doors family shelter operated by Family Promise of Spokane, but health officials are waiting on test results from other shelters, as well.

“This is the beginning of a really rough flu season and COVID season in the shelters, and these increases in cases over the last couple of weeks will just continue,” Kylie Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator for the Spokane Regional Health District, told the Spokane City Council.

The City Council held a study session Thursday to hear from local officials on the city’s ongoing response to COVID-19.

The health district has long feared the potential for COVID-19 to spread among people staying in shelters, where people live and sleep in tight quarters. The health district has implemented social distancing and other protocols at Spokane’s shelters. The shelters have largely been spared from the disease to this point, but officials have long cautioned that outbreaks remain a possibility.

“Our biggest priority is to try to keep our shelters safe and to avoid massive outbreaks,” Kingsbury said.

One such outbreak began last week at Open Doors. Since last Thursday, Open Doors has seen its number of COVID-19 cases jump from zero to 21, according to Joe Ader, executive director of Family Promise.

The first COVID-positive guest called from the doctor’s office and was immediately isolated, but transmission of the disease had already begun.

The spread comes despite the nonprofit working closely with the health district to reduce risks and dramatically shift its operations, including creating its own isolation facilities and opening a second 24/7 family shelter for people who have compromised immune systems, Ader told the City Council.

The health district oversees two isolation facilities for people who are unable to safely isolate at home, which can include people experiencing homelessness, at the My Place Hotel in Spokane Valley and Immaculate Heart Retreat Center just south of the city limits..

Since its launch on June 1, 225 people have isolated at the hotel, including 60 in the past 30 days.

“That kind of highlights how things are changing and things have been increasing lately, with the flu season and cold weather coming,” Kingsbury said.

The second isolation facility at the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, which opened later, has served 110 people, including 62 in the past 30 days.

“Capacity changes daily, and they are in good shape to serve more community members if needed,” Kelli Hawkins, a health district spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

The entire Open Doors shelter is now essentially a quarantine facility. One family that tested completely negative was moved out of the shelter while the rest remained.

Most people who tested positive have had light symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to Ader.

Of the 21 positive cases, two are staff members and the rest are shelter guests. A single mother was hospitalized for one night, but returned to the shelter against doctor’s guidance because the hospital would not allow her kids to stay with her, Ader said.

“I saw her this morning and she seems to be doing much better,” Ader said.

All of the staff that has tested negative was retested on Thursday, according to Ader.

“Based on these results, we’ll work with the health department on what a phased reopening may look like,” Ader said.