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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Homeless shelters will have to isolate COVID-19-positive people as isolation facility contract expires

Kylie Kingsbury, right, homeless outreach coordinator with the Spokane Regional Health District, checks the temperature of Stephen O’Bryant, a resident of the temporary Spokane Arena shelter, during a screening for COVID-19 on May 28, 2020.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review)
By Emma Epperly and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Homeless shelters in the Spokane region will have to isolate COVID-positive people in their own facilities, upending earlier isolation plans providers relied on.

For most of the pandemic, homeless people in the region have been able to isolate at the My Place hotel in Spokane Valley.

There they have a bed to sleep in, a private bathroom and meals provided for them as they went through their COVID-19 illness, with or without symptoms, until they were no longer contagious and free to leave.

But that option has disappeared in recent weeks and perhaps permanently, with the My Place contract expiring Aug. 31.

The Spokane Regional Health District has yet to identify another option, despite multiple visits to potential sites, and instead is asking shelters to provide isolation options to those who test positive for the virus, according to an internal memo from the health district.

Shelters learned of the move late this week, and not all were consulted about the decision, despite claims to the contrary.

Volunteers of America, an organization that operates several shelters, including Crosswalk and Hope House, does not have the space to isolate a COVID positive guest, said Rae-Lynn Barden, a spokesperson for VOA.

The non-profit heard about the decision not to open another isolation facility Thursday night, and Barden said they were not a part of the decision-making process.

VOA has struggled to fully staff its shelters throughout the pandemic, limiting the number of available beds.

Staff members are frequently out awaiting COVID-19 test results, and hiring has been difficult for a job that requires constant contact with the public, said Stephen Miller, senior vice president of adult services.

When VOA is able to fully staff its shelters, all of the beds are full, Miller said, and being required to isolate people would not only reduce the number of shelter beds but be a danger to staff and other residents.

Currently, when people arrive at a VOA shelter they’re screened for COVID-19 symptoms. If they have symptoms and need to be tested, they will be isolated in a small room until they can be taken to the isolation facility.

Without that option, Miller said he’s not sure what they’ll do.

Earlier this month, shelters sent the health district a detailed letter explaining the need for a separate isolation facility where they could send people who test positive for COVID-19 .

On Friday, the Spokane Regional Health District made it clear that even if the county secures a new hotel isolation site, it will only be made available to shelters should they exceed their collective capacity.

“According to Spokane County representatives who have met with homeless shelter management, the shelters have space and are willing to provide isolation services on site,” Kelli Hawkins, spokesperson for the district said in an email. “If they were to exceed their capacity collectively, then yes, we can accept shelter patrons at the community site.”

The district has not identified this new hotel site yet, and Spokane County, which is funding the site, is “moving forward to finalize details and negotiate a contract for a new community isolation location using a hotel option,” according to Hawkins.

The health district also began discussions with American Behavioral Health regarding referral and transition of COVID-19 positive clients who would benefit from those services, according to Hawkins.

Earlier this year, homeless shelters had been able to contain outbreaks responsively, and vaccination rates have been higher in some facilities than the county as a whole.

The delta variant changed things, however, and now many shelters have had outbreaks.

Just this week, a regular at the men’s shelter tested positive for COVID-19 and decided to check into Mann Grandstaff Veterans’ Hospital. He died not long after, said Dave Wall, community engagement director at Union Gospel Mission.

Wall said most of their residents who have tested positive have recovered. There are currently three men in isolation at UGM.

Health district staff members will continue their work with shelters providing testing, vaccines, resources and referrals.

The health district memo says “shelter providers have the necessary skills and experience to work with the populations who seek their help.” But not all providers agree on this point.

UGM has the capacity to expand and isolate guests who test positive, said Phil Altmeyer, executive director of UGM. COVID-positive people are isolated in the same dorm, and Altmeyer said they could open more dorms for isolation.

Not all providers have as much space as UGM however.

Creating a separate area to quarantine potentially positive people would likely reduce shelter beds due to staffing concerns at VOA shelters, and that could only happen if VOA could gain access to the necessary personal protective equipment to protect its staff.

At Hope House most residents in the respite beds, where people recently released from the hospital go to continue their recovery, are high risk, making it even more dangerous to have potentially COVID-positive people in the facility.

Miller said he would like a concerted centralized plan for shelters to deal with guests who need to be quarantined. That way people who are homeless and stay at multiple shelters would know the rules across each provider and would receive the same level of care, Miller said.

Shelter providers from Catholic Charities, the Guardians, Transitions, VOA and Union Gospel Mission signed off on an email to Administrator Amelia Clark and Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez on Friday expressing concerns about staffing should they be required to isolate people.

“We are unable to provide formal isolation at quarantine spaces at our shelter sites,” the email says. “Please seek an immediate solution to this issue. We are fearful that many shelters will have little choice but to simply send COVID positive cases to the ER or hospital or urgent care clinics, which would put a profoundly dangerous burden on an already overwhelmed system.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.