Back in March, Union Gospel Mission shrank the capacity of its men's shelter, fearing that COVID-19 would make it in and spread to its guests.
"We understand if something were to come into one of the homeless shelters that would be a bad situation," Joel Brown, director of ministries, told the Inlander. "It would spread fairly easily."
Through most of 2020, however, that never happened. The men's shelter didn't have any COVID cases for months, and no serious outbreaks.
That's changed. In the last six weeks, the UGM Men's Shelter has had 70 people test positive for COVID-19, including guests and staff. Brown and four other shelter staffers, including the shelter manager, are unable to work because they have COVID-19, says Dave Wall, director of community engagement for UGM. Thirty cases remain active.
Now, the shelter is halting new intakes for the next couple weeks at a time when shelters across the region have often been full.
"Unfortunately, this added step is necessary to stop the spread," UGM writes in a news release. "UGM recognizes that this will put additional pressure on the rest of the shelter system."
UGM hopes to reopen the shelter on Feb. 14, depending on whether the outbreak is under control by then. Dave Wall, director of community engagement for UGM, says the people who have tested positive have gone to a separate facility to quarantine.
The UGM Crisis Shelter for Women and Children remains open to new intakes.
The men's shelter has a normal bed capacity of 185, but due to COVID, the shelter reduced capacity to 130. There are currently 119 guests staying at the shelter, with dozens more at the separate facility due to testing positive for the virus.
Nobody who tested positive has been hospitalized, Wall says.
The shelter hasn't been able to trace how the virus first made it into the shelter, but Wall says cases started popping up around Christmas. Since the outbreak, with input from the Spokane Regional Health District, the shelter has changed its air filtration and its sleeping and dining arrangements.
"We were expecting outbreaks to happen earlier in 2020. I think that just never happened," she says. "Cases recently are not necessarily anything new — we've been having a slow rumbling within the shelters, and most shelters have experienced clients positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, guests and staff members started on Jan. 25 to receive vaccinations from the Spokane Regional Health District. Kingsbury says they have given vaccine doses to 175 people at local shelters, both guests and staff. She says they are following the priorities outlined by the Department of Health, which currently allows people 65 and older and people 50 or older in multigenerational households to receive a vaccine.
Vaccines can help with what Kingsbury says are two public health emergencies related to people experiencing homelessness: COVID-19, and the danger of people freezing outside for lack of shelter space. With shelters at reduced capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, shelter space has been hard to find this winter.
But Kingsbury says she's grateful that even though there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at local shelters, there have only been a handful of hospitalizations, and no deaths due to COVID-19 that she's aware of. About half the people infected were asymptomatic, she says.
"It's like a small miracle," she says.