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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Health

Norovirus outbreak hits Spokane homeless shelter House of Charity

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 8, 2021

Beds at the House of Charity.  (House of Charity)
Beds at the House of Charity. (House of Charity)

The House of Charity is on lockdown due to a suspected norovirus outbreak that forced the shelter to close itself off to new guests.

The emergency homeless shelter stopped accepting new people on Dec. 1. There is no definite timeline for when it will resume normal operations, but public health officials are optimistic the worst is over.

“They’ve done all the heavy lifting in terms of the prevention and keeping people isolated,” said Mark Springer, an epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District.

The presence of norovirus has not been confirmed through lab testing, but symptoms in 40 people who have contracted the sickness are consistent with the disease.

The outbreak stands as a firm reminder that COVID-19 is not the only disease with which any congregate care facility has to contend.

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads via fecal matter, typically from contaminated food, water or surfaces.

“The virus is pretty hardy in the environment and can persist for several weeks,” Springer said.

Although often referred to as the stomach flu, norovirus is actually distinct from the flu virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms usually last about one to three days and include stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Although the risk posed by norovirus is not typically dire, Springer said emergency room visits can be necessary if a person becomes dehydrated due to an inability to keep down food or liquid.

People with symptoms are required to isolate for five days.

The House of Charity was the site of a severe norovirus outbreak in 2016, which forced it to erect temporary tents to house people adjacent to the shelter. About half of the shelter’s guests fell ill, and the nonprofit was forced to call on the community in search of volunteers to help its efforts.

“Obviously, we learned a lot from that,” said Sarah Yerden, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities, the nonprofit that operates House of Charity.

This outbreak is not comparable to the one in 2016 in terms of scale. The nonprofit has since built quarantine units in its permanent supportive housing buildings, but has not been forced to use them.

“Now because we learned from that, and because of COVID, we were able to swiftly isolate and quarantine people, so that mitigated cases,” Yerden said.

Springer and Kylie Kingsbury, the health district’s homeless outreach coordinator, lauded House of Charity staff for acting quickly to isolate symptomatic people and alert the health district.

“I think it was just one more example of the power of prevention,” Kingsbury said.

Norovirus outbreaks can also occur in places like cruise ships and long-term care settings, Springer said, and sometimes last for weeks.

“I would put a lot of credit on the speed of House of Charity’s response to this,” Springer said.

Although House of Charity was hit with the outbreak, that does not necessarily mean the shelter was the original source of transmission.

In the meantime, the shelter’s guests are receiving self-contained meals and are social distancing, Yerden said. COVID-19 protocols, like masks, remain in place, and the shelter is being regularly disinfected.

Should it be necessary, “we definitely have other sites available that we can use for quarantining if we need to mobilize them,” Yerden said.

That’s unlikely, as the number of new cases is already on the decline.

Yerden praised the shelter staff who have continued to work in difficult conditions.

“At this point, we’re definitely prepared to mobilize staff from around Catholic Charities to our shelter programs to ensure we can maintain essential services without disruption,” Yerden said.

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