The number of COVID-19 cases associated with Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter has grown to 101, according to the municipality’s Emergency Operations Center.
Audrey Gray, spokeswoman with the Emergency Operations Center, also said Wednesday that 41 additional cases have been identified at other homeless shelters in Anchorage. The new Brother Francis cases were identified through testing conducted Friday.
Gray said she was unable to release the names of the other shelters because the rate of possible exposure did not rise to the level of requiring public notification.
The state is working closely with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on responding to the outbreak at Anchorage’s homeless shelters, said Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.
State officials are also working with behavioral health and substance abuse partners to support homeless individuals with COVID-19 and their close contacts so they have a safe place to go and are not spreading the virus to others in the community, Zink said in a video briefing Wednesday.
“This is a challenging outbreak with many different nuanced layers to it," Zink said.
During a joint hearing before the Health and Social Services and House State Affairs committees Wednesday, Anchorage’s epidemiologist was asked whether public health officials have the outbreak among the city’s homeless population under control. Dr. Janet Johnston said that’s a “tough question” to answer at this point.
The municipality has made a lot of progress getting testing in place so COVID-19 cases can be quickly identified, and there’s adequate capacity for isolation and quarantine, she said.
“The challenge in tracking it is that this is a rather amorphous population," Johnston said. “So when we deal with an outbreak someplace like the Pioneer Home, we at least know who everyone is. We can figure out who all the potential cases are. But here, it’s a population that, while people have been staying in a particular shelter more during this pandemic, people still move around, and there’s sort of a leaky border between someone who’s truly homeless and someone who’s at risk of homelessness.”
While contact tracing among people experiencing homeless is difficult, Johnston said, the city plans to expand testing beyond the shelters and into places where homeless individuals gather.
“I’m mildly optimistic that we’re getting it under control,” Johnston said.
Brother Francis Shelter is encouraging clients to stay at the shelter as much as possible and to only leave to go to medical appointments, job sites or the post office, or to perform essential errands, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which operates the shelter.
The shelter’s capacity is down to 72 beds from 114 as the shelter has rearranged cots to add more space for clients. Forty-six people stayed there on Tuesday night, Aquino said.
COVID-19 tests are administered twice a week to everyone at Brother Francis Shelter. Other shelters where testing is occurring include Sullivan Arena, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, Covenant House, Clare House, Downtown Hope Center and McKinnell House, according to the municipality’s COVID-19 website.
Reporters Zaz Hollander, Morgan Krakow and Annie Berman contributed.
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