A COVID-19 outbreak at Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter has grown to include 60 clients and one staff member, public health officials said Thursday.
The city health department said it is now working with local service providers to test guests and staff at each of Anchorage’s homeless shelters, soup kitchens and encampments.
Five people associated with the Brother Francis Shelter outbreak were hospitalized, four of whom were later discharged. One person remains hospitalized with the virus, state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said during a call with reporters.
A client who stayed at the shelter first came down with the virus last week, according to Catholic Social Services, which runs the shelter.
“We immediately began testing staff and clients, and arranging to quarantine contacts,” Bill Falsey, incident commander with the city, said in an emailed statement.
Anchorage’s shelters had been performing symptom and temperature checks for months but had not conducted widespread testing until last Thursday, when everyone at the shelter was tested. As of Tuesday, a total of 20 clients and one staff member had tested positive for the virus. Eighteen of the clients were reportedly asymptomatic.
All the clients and staff who have tested positive are now in isolation “at a secure and monitored location,” according to a joint statement from the Anchorage Health Department, which is leading the response to the outbreak, and municipal emergency operations center.
Dr. Bruce Chandler, Anchorage medical officer for disease prevention and control, added that “it is likely that this outbreak extends beyond the residents in this one shelter and widespread testing of persons experiencing homelessness and their care providers is needed.”
“Weekly testing will likely be needed for several weeks to identify people who test negative but who may be carrying the virus,” city health and emergency officials said in Thursday’s statement.
Chandler said he expected to see more cases associated with this outbreak, including those who may require hospitalization.
“Health care providers should be on the lookout for people experiencing homelessness with serious illness,” he said.
The city health department added Brother Francis to its list of COVID-19 exposure locations, which describes the exposure period at the shelter as extending from Aug. 16 to the present.
Brother Francis, formerly Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter, can accommodate up to 114 people. In late March, it drastically reduced its client load and began accepting only the elderly or medically fragile, two populations that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified as being at a higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. Between 70 and 90 clients have been staying at the shelter recently.
Several people sat in the sunshine outside Brother Francis Shelter on Thursday afternoon.
“We’re not worried. We’re using masks,” said Anna Lincoln, pulling a white cotton mask from her jacket pocket.
Next to her was a man using a walker who would only give his name as Eugene.
“It’s here. We can’t do nothing about it,” he said, referring to the coronavirus. “Where are we going to go?”
Laura Tiffin, originally from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, said people who are homeless stick together, especially important during the pandemic.
“We help each other out,” Tiffin said.
Tiffin said she had been staying in the woods nearby but moved to the shelter because of wildlife. “The bears got our tent,” she said.
Tiffin and Lincoln both said they feel Brother Francis is taking adequate precautions to protect the clients.
After COVID-19 emerged at Brother Francis over the past week, medical contractors began testing clients and shelter staff three times a week. Previously, clients were given a temperature screening and asked a series of questions before being admitted to the shelter.
Sullivan Arena, which the city converted to a mass shelter on March 21, is housing more than 350 people per night, exceeding its capacity. Operators have started a waiting list for people who want to stay there while city officials scramble to rapidly house as many homeless individuals as possible in apartments, hotel rooms and elsewhere.
Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, said her staff is doing contact tracing to identify anyone who may have come in contact with individuals who were infected at Brother Francis. Bean’s Cafe has a contract with the city to operate Sullivan Arena as Anchorage’s largest mass shelter.
Sauder said she’s very concerned about the outbreak at Brother Francis. But because there’s not a lot of back-and-forth between the clients at Brother Francis and Sullivan Arena, the risk at this point seems to be manageable. Bean’s Cafe staff will continue current screening, hygiene and social distancing protocols and clients will be tested for COVID-19 once a week, Sauder said.
Some 367 people stayed at Sullivan Arena on Wednesday night, said Cathleen McLaughlin, operations director for Bean’s Cafe.
She said people wanting to stay at arena were waiting in hope that other homeless individuals would not check in by the 10 p.m. curfew, so shelter staff could free up cots.
The CDC continues to encourage social distancing, wearing a face mask in public and keeping social bubbles small. But these actions can be particularly challenging for people experiencing homelessness, who don’t have as many places to go.
“One thing that I’ve noticed,” said Sean Sullivan, a local homeless outreach worker with RurAL CAP, “is it’s difficult for (unhoused people) to social distance, because all they really have is each other.”