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‘Scared’: Shelter providers plead for isolation services to continue amid COVID-19 outbreaks

The My Place hotel in Spokane Valley had served as an isolation location through the end of August for people who tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn't quarantine at home. The surge in COVID-19 cases in the county has prompted officials to seek a new contract for a hotel-like shelter.   (Google Maps)
The My Place hotel in Spokane Valley had served as an isolation location through the end of August for people who tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn't quarantine at home. The surge in COVID-19 cases in the county has prompted officials to seek a new contract for a hotel-like shelter.  (Google Maps)

Spokane shelter providers are imploring elected leaders to maintain a COVID-19 isolation facility as outbreaks are on the rise among people who are homeless.

The agreement allowing the Spokane Regional Health District to operate an isolation facility at the My Place Hotel in Spokane Valley, which first opened last year, is set to expire at the end of the month.

The hotel will not be an option moving forward, and health district leaders have not revealed where new isolation facilities will be after August.

Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters on Wednesday that the district will continue its partnership with the city and county to offer isolation options, but no sites have been solidified yet.

The health district has visited four potential new sites as of Wednesday, and Velázquez said the district is pursuing a multiple-site approach to isolation going forward.

He said the district is considering options to serve those who need to be isolated for the virus as well as other co-occurring conditions.

“Currently we do have the isolation capacity that is needed, and we do track our isolation capacity utilization on a daily basis, and thus far we’re meeting those needs very well,” Velázquez told reporters Wednesday.

That picture differs from the one painted by shelter providers this week.

In a letter on Thursday, leaders of several local shelters implored the health district and elected officials to continue offering isolation beds. It was signed by representatives from Union Gospel Mission, Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities, and other shelter and social service providers in Spokane.

The current 21-room isolation facility has been at or near capacity several times in recent weeks as the delta variant has swept into Spokane, they said. That has forced providers to, at times, attempt to isolate COVID-positive guests and simultaneously operate as both shelter and medical service provider.

“Additionally, this has rendered it impossible to quarantine people who were exposed, but not yet testing positive,” the letter states. “Without adequate capacity to quarantine the folks who have been exposed to COVID-19, our shelter community is at risk of rampant disease transmission.”

Without an isolation plan in place, Edie Rice-Sauer, executive director of Transitions, said providers are “scared, frankly.”

“We’re not equipped to do this,” Rice-Sauer said.

An isolation facility is a critical tool used by providers to separate a person who tests positive for COVID-19 from the rest of a shelter’s population. Although the facility is not exclusively for people who are homeless, it is used to help prevent major outbreaks in shelters.

But just as COVID-19 cases have surged throughout Spokane County’s housed population, the virus has also infiltrated homeless shelters.

The isolation facility has been inundated multiple times in recent days, and the health district has been forced to ask shelters to find a way to isolate shelter guests inside their facility.

The number of people isolated at the My Place Hotel jumped from 26 in June to 41 in July, with 35 of those arriving after July 21. So far, 21 people have already isolated at My Place in August.

In July, only one COVID-positive person was forced to isolate at a shelter, according to the health district. As of Friday, there had already been 44 such cases in August.

Union Gospel Mission has faced outbreaks at two of its three shelters in Spokane, according to Director of Ministries Joel Brown. It’s been asked by the health district to isolate COVID-positive clients on site.

The new protocol is a change from last fall and winter when there was plenty of space at local isolation facilities, which allowed “the shelters to control the COVID outbreaks and greatly limit the spread of the COVID virus,” Brown wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

“If the level of infection continues at the current rate, many of our shelters will be in a situation where we have to limit or close to new clients because we don’t have enough beds to comply with COVID isolation requirements and house regular shelter clients,” Brown said.

The rise in cases comes despite strong vaccination rates among people who are homeless, according to Kylie Kingsbury, the health district’s homeless outreach coordinator. The health district didn’t see outbreaks in shelters for weeks this summer before cases started to increase.

“We were really excited about vaccination efforts and really hopeful,” Kingsbury said. “We thought we were turning a corner, and things have not continued on that trajectory. Now we are seeing cases at every shelter except for two, and pretty significant outbreaks.”

The health district conducts weekly surveillance testing for COVID-19 at local shelters, and ramps up to twice-weekly tests if that shelter is experiencing an outbreak. It conducts on-call testing for people who are symptomatic.

Before the surge of the delta variant, cases were limited to one or two people at a time. Now, testing can show outbreaks of 15 or 20 people.

While there have been breakthrough cases in vaccinated people at shelters, Kingsbury said “the large majority of the time, they have less symptoms.” Thus, the health district is reminding people that the vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death.

Spokane previously had two isolation shelters. The first to open was at My Place, followed by the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center. The latter was allowed to close at the end of May as officials deemed it no longer needed.

The contract to operate the isolation facility expires at the end of August, but it will stop accepting new guests days before that deadline, generating even more urgency among shelter providers to find a solution.

Jared Webley, a spokesperson for the county, told The Spokesman-Review that the health district is leading the logistics of continuing isolation services while county leaders are willing and working to find a funding source.

The city of Spokane is also involved in discussions about isolation services, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington. Mayor Nadine Woodward supported the location of both previous isolation centers, Coddington said, “and there’s active conversation about finding an alternative location.” It’s unclear how much money it might take.

“There are a couple of locations that are being vetted right now, and depending on what those are, that would dictate the need for funding. The preference would be to find a location that already comes with some level of staffing,” Coddington said.

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