Homeless people weren't spared during Central Okanagan COVID outbreak this summer | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Homeless people weren't spared during Central Okanagan COVID outbreak this summer

Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Interior Health Authority

When a COVID-19 outbreak was declared for the entire Central Okanagan in late July it cut a wide swath through the entire population – including homeless people.

“This pandemic is affecting everybody,” Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema told iNFOnews.ca, Oct. 7. “The homeless population was one of the groups that was affected.”

Over the course of several weeks there were about 150 homeless people in the Central Okanagan infected with COVID which, Dr. Mema noted, was a relatively small proportion of cases at a time when there were 200 to 250 cases a day in the Interior Health region, most of them in the Central Okanagan.

READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak declared in Central Okanagan, masking ordered for all indoor spaces

There have also been homeless people in Kamloops, Penticton, Grand Forks, Trail and Merritt who have been infected over the course of the pandemic, she said.

Some of the Central Okanagan cases were among people living in emergency shelters but others were unhoused.

“The way we support them is providing additional spaces in hotels or motels so they can isolate,” Dr. Mema said. “We provide them with what they need, food, sometimes they need alcohol if they have an addiction problem, medication, opioid agonist treatment, whatever they need.”

They also have access to counselling and other support services they would otherwise be getting.

At one point, in late August or early September, there were too many infected people, about 50, and not enough hotel rooms as it was during the peak summer tourism season.

By that time, Interior Health had been holding “coordination calls” with shelter operators three times a week to get them set up so residents with COVID could still be sheltered there.

That meant having beds separated with barriers from other residents, separate bathrooms and other safety measures as well as educating staff on how to treat those who were ill.

For a short period of time, some shelters had to be used to house the sick. That included about 20 people housed at Kelowna's Gospel Mission for about two weeks but the same was done in some other shelters, Dr. Mema said.

READ MORE: 19 more schools in Interior Health on COVID exposure list

Now, there are only 10 active cases among the homeless population, she said.

At the height of the outbreak there were other populations that were infected, like temporary foreign workers on farms or a number of people in a particular apartment complex, Dr. Mema said.

“We don’t make all of that public, because there is no risk to the public,” Dr. Mema said, in response to questions about why the situation in the Gospel Mission was not made public.

COVID cases in businesses are only publicized if health officials can’t trace all those who might have been exposed.

On the other hand, even a single case in a long-term care home triggers a public declaration of an outbreak. An Interior Health website lists schools that have potential exposures.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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