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Anchorage Health Department identifies 193 COVID-19 cases in homeless population

Health officials say there is a large COVID-19 outbreak at the Brother Francis Shelter.
Health officials say there is a large COVID-19 outbreak at the Brother Francis Shelter.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 11, 2020 at 5:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - COVID-19 continues to spread throughout people who are homeless in Anchorage. After an outbreak at Brother Francis Shelter was reported in August, the municipality is now reporting 193 cases of the virus in the homeless population as of Wednesday.

At least 100 of those cases are associated with the Brother Francis Shelter. Of the 193 cases in the homeless population, nine people have been hospitalized, five of which are currently receiving care in a hospital. Three people have been discharged from the hospital. One homeless person with COVID-19 has died.

The Anchorage Health Department has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help Anchorage respond specifically to the outbreak.

“Our CDC friends are landing and gathering today in Anchorage to help us work through the challenges and really look at best practices,” said Heather Harris, director of the Anchorage Health Department, in a press conference Friday.

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The CDC will help with data collection and contact tracing, Harris said. The two organizations will coordinate the response plan to the outbreak and formulate isolation and quarantine strategies.

Currently, shelters have been asked to maintain thorough registries of who comes and goes from a shelter. Since cases were identified at shelters, regular testing has been implemented.

“We’ve got a pretty intensive testing regiment going on,” said Dr. Janet Johnston, AHD epidemiologist. “So most of the shelters are testing at least twice a week so that we can quickly identify cases again and move them into isolation.”

AHD reports that 42 of the 193 cases were discovered during the last 10 days. 36 people who tested positive are currently isolated, and another 67 people considered under investigation for COVID are also in quarantine.

Lisa Aquino, CEO of Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis Shelter, said she’s looking forward to hearing the feedback from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials. She added that the guidance could help streamline the city’s data-sharing system.

“The thing is, we don’t always have the latest data,” she said. “It’s the health department, or it’s the testing agency or the state that has that data, and it’s how to get that latest data out as quickly as possible to us on the front line.”

At the mass emergency shelter in the Sullivan Arena, capacity is 367 with everyone in cots. That number can be expanded to 376 if some people sleep on mats.

Bean’s Café CEO Lisa Sauder said Wednesday that the pandemic complicates finding space for everyone, but they need more shelter beds immediately, as cold weather is coming.

“The Brother Francis Shelter, I know, has had to reduce their capacity due to COVID,” she said. “We’re all trying to kind of keep our bubbles between shelters, but with fall and winter coming, we have to have a place for people to go. We need to be able to move people out of shelter so we can open up more shelter space, and we also need more shelter spaces for people.”

Sauder said there is also an urgent need for 24-hour access to behavioral health resources and gap-free addiction treatment.

“We’re seeing people that get into detox and then have to come back to shelter to wait to get into treatment,” Sauder explained, “and that’s just not a recipe for success for most folks. We also need more housing options for those who are stable and able to get back to work right away.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to report current numbers of COVID-19 in the homeless population.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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