Anchorage expands virus testing among homeless population after outbreak at Brother Francis Shelter

We're making this important information about the pandemic available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting independent journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week.

The city is expanding its coronavirus testing at homeless shelters across Anchorage amid an acute outbreak at Brother Francis Shelter involving dozens of people.

The municipality also expects to start testing at homeless camps soon and double down on efforts to house as many people as possible in hotel rooms or alternative sites, city manager Bill Falsey said Friday.

Medical contractors for the city have conducted 178 tests at Brother Francis Shelter since Aug. 18 and 61 have come back positive. More test results from Brother Francis and other shelters are pending.

“The story is still moving and potentially may not be over,” Falsey said.

Two more cases at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter were confirmed Friday at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter, out of a total of 139 tests taken earlier in the week, said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, which operates the shelter. So far, seven clients and one staff member at Sullivan Arena have tested positive after multiple rounds of testing that began on July 31, said Cathleen McLaughlin, operations director.

[Outbreak at Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter grows to more than 60 cases]

The city will test clients once a week at all shelters going forward until the outbreak is contained. At Brother Francis, testing is happening three times a week.

The situation at Brother Francis is the “scenario that worried us from the beginning,” Falsey said.

In congregate settings like homeless shelters or nursing homes, the virus can spread rapidly. Homeless residents and the elderly are particularly vulnerable because they tend to have underlying health conditions. At Brother Francis, only elderly, frail, or medically compromised people are currently served. With a maximum capacity of 114, the shelter is no longer accepting new clients, Falsey said.

There are no plans to shut it down, he said.

Sauder and McLaughlin, with Bean’s Cafe, said they are being hyper-vigilant about testing and safety protocols at Sullivan Arena. They are encouraging clients to embrace testing so that everyone at the shelter can stay healthy.

“We say, ’You’re doing your part in keeping this place safe. It’s a group effort,’ ” McLaughlin said.

The city is considering taking COVID-19 testing to people living in homeless camps, he said. That hasn’t begun yet but is “on the radar.”

Despite the outbreak and the city’s concern that it could spread within and beyond the shelter system, there is no cause for alarm among the general population, Falsey said.

“We don’t believe it is an imminent public health risk to the community at large,” he said.

Anchorage health officials did not immediately alert the public about the Brother Francis Shelter outbreak because it originally involved only 18 cases and contract tracers felt they had the capacity to handle the situation, Falsey said. Once the outbreak grew to over 60 people, the city issued an alert to the public saying the shelter was added to a list of confirmed COVID-19 exposure locations.

“We still have the bandwidth to contact 61, but the lived experience is we are having imperfect success in actually connecting with all of the positive cases in a timely manner. And so, in order to best protect the public health, we did add it to the exposure location (list) because the contact system is not working as perfectly as we would like,” he said.

On Friday, Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, said there were 235 new cases reported citywide in the last week, down slightly from the prior week’s 303 new cases.

The city’s case rate per 100,000 people over a two-week period continued to decrease, down to 12.8 per 100,000 last week. That number still puts the city in the state’s highest alert level for COVID-19 spread. In order to get into an intermediate level, that rate would need to dip to 10 and down further to five for the low alert level.

Being in a high alert level means there is “widespread community transmission with many undetected cases and frequent discrete outbreaks,” according to the state’s health department.

[Anchorage’s bars and restaurants can open to indoor dining Monday at half capacity, with other restrictions]

It’s likely Anchorage is doing enough testing, as the average positivity rate for a weeklong stretch of time has hovered around 2%, though it went up slightly in the last week, Johnston said.

Although the number of cases each day has slowly dropped, hospitalizations for COVID-19 stayed steady and there have been outbreaks among vulnerable people — which could mean a higher percentage of people hospitalized going forward, she said.

Researchers from the University of Alaska Anchorage now forecast that the city will not run out of intensive care unit beds, a turnaround from late July when projections showed the city had only a number of weeks before possibly overwhelming its ICUs, Johnston said.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]