Coronavirus outbreak in Anchorage homeless has likely spread beyond shelters, prompting expansion of testing and tracing

Brother Francis Shelter, homeless shelter
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A large coronavirus outbreak at Brother Francis Shelter has likely expanded into Anchorage’s overall homeless population, prompting officials to ramp up testing and contact tracing to locations beyond shelters, city epidemiologist Dr. Janet Johnston said Friday.

The testing and contact tracing are occurring at places that people experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless are known to frequent, Johnston said at a community briefing.

As many as 106 homeless Anchorage residents have tested positive in connection with the outbreak, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, on Thursday. At last count, 89 COVID-19 cases involve people associated with Brother Francis Shelter, which is run by Catholic Social Services.

One person at Brother Francis who was infected with the virus has died, Johnston said. The death occurred Sept. 1, said Chelsea Ward-Waller, special assistant to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

Of the six people who were hospitalized in connection with the outbreak, four have been discharged, one remains in the hospital and others are in isolation, quarantine and recovery, Johnston said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has directed $250,000 in CARES Act funding to help Brother Francis clients with medical and psychological issues. The money will flow through the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and “help a group that is experiencing substance use disorders who will be required to remain in their isolation location,” Dunleavy said in a statement Friday.

“Proactively supporting the complex symptoms of withdrawal will significantly impact efforts to successfully isolate and quarantine individuals,” Dunleavy said.

Catholic Social Services welcomes the state’s support to provide resources and choices to people struggling with substance misuse and homelessness, said Tricia Teasley, vice president of development and strategic communications.

Catholic Social Services staff and clients “are overwhelmed with grief at the news of the passing of one of the guests at Brother Francis Shelter. We send our deepest condolences and prayers to this guest’s family and friends,” Teasley said.

The death “brings immense sorrow and grief to everyone at Brother Francis and Catholic Social Services,” Teasley said.

Testing for COVID-19 at Brother Francis started in late August after someone became infected. In retrospect, it would have been better to have begun testing in March so that the outbreak could have been contained sooner, said Bill Falsey, city manager.

But hindsight is 20/20, he said.

“We did, sort of, the best we could and got there as quickly as we could,” Falsey said Friday.

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

Falsey said supply chain issues related to testing materials was a factor in the delay.

COVID-19 testing at Sullivan Arena, which was converted into the city’s largest homeless shelter, began July 31. As of last week, seven clients and one staff member there had tested positive, but Cathleen McLaughlin, operations director of the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena, said Friday that 12 more positive test results among clients have come back.

“The important point now is, once we do have a signal that there is disease in any of these locations, we are going to continue to do at least weekly testing until we get two weeks of zero cases, and for the particular case of Brother Francis now, we are doing twice-weekly testing,” Falsey said.

Brother Francis is now maintaining a bubble and not accepting new clients — one of the new measures the shelter is taking to try to contain the outbreak.

Some people on the streets near the shelter are still getting used to the new policy. Dwayne Smith, who said he stays at Brother Francis on and off, sat on East Third Avenue between Karluk and Ingra streets on Friday afternoon. A former maintenance man and landscaper, Smith said he left Brother Francis to go to the store to buy a bottle of soda. Upon his return, he wasn’t allowed in.

“It’s confusing with all that’s going on. I wouldn’t blame them,” Smith said. “It was my misunderstanding.”

If he had the money, Smith said he would love to spend the night at the Mush Inn. But because he doesn’t have the $60 needed to rent a room, Smith said he would likely spend the night on the sidewalk.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the death involving someone affiliated with Brother Francis Shelter who tested positive for COVID-19.

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Paula Dobbyn

Paula Dobbyn is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on homelessness. She's a veteran Alaska journalist who has reported for the Anchorage Daily News, KTUU and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Contact her at