20 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at Seaton House, Toronto officials say

Twenty residents of a large homeless shelter in Toronto have tested positive for COVID-19, city officials said on Wednesday.

Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, said test results received by the city confirmed the 20 COVID-19 cases at Seaton House, 339 George St., on Tuesday and additional testing will be done on Thursday.

Bedard said the city has moved all 20 residents to its recovery centre while it implements measures at the shelter to try to control the outbreak. Staff are working closely with Toronto Public Health to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. The outbreak was reported on Jan. 21.

“It’s not surprising to see an increase of outbreaks in the shelter system but that’s why we respond to them so aggressively because we want to make sure we are maintaining as few infections as we can,” Bedard told reporters at a city hall news briefing.

Measures implemented at the shelter include contact tracing of infected residents and staff members, screening residents and staff members for COVID-19 symptoms, enhanced cleaning and ensuring everyone is wearing masks when indoors, she said.

Bedard said all of the residents with COVID-19 were in the shelter’s hostel program and additional testing on Thursday will involve “other floors” from where they were staying and other programs.

Seaton House used to have a capacity of more than 500 people but the city reduced that to about 200 early in the pandemic to allow for physical distancing, she added.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said shelter outbreaks are concerning because residents face a number of challenges already.

“We know residents within a shelter often have a number of chronic illnesses and conditions that make one concerned about the potential impacts of COVID-19,” she said. 

‘Last best line of defence is really vaccination’

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, based in Calgary, said the numbers are worrisome. He said the second wave has been “much more challenging and much more damaging” than the first wave to the homeless population because there have been outbreaks in places where there weren’t in the first wave.

Richter said a solution is to make unhoused people a priority group for vaccinations. People who are experiencing homelessness cannot stay at home to protect themselves from the virus, he added.

“Our last best line of defence is really vaccination,” he said.

“They have no protection, other than vaccination, in any meaningful way. You cannot be protected from a pandemic in a shelter or encampment.”

Richter said a recent study in Ontario, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, shows that homeless people are more likely to become infected with COVID-19, over 20 times more likely to need hospitalization, over 10 times more likely to need intensive care units and over five times more likely to die within 21 days of a positive test.

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