As COVID cases rise, we need to move beyond congregate shelters

As COVID-19 case numbers rise in our community DESC’s housing and shelter programs have also seen an increase in new infections. After a period of two months with no cases, despite lots of testing, the number of positive cases started to increase again last month. Since the beginning of July, there have been nineteen new cases among people living or staying at DESC. Twelve of these occurred at our Navigation Center shelter. This means 63% of these cases occurred in a facility that contains around 2% of our total beds. We received some good news today: the latest round of tests all came back negative.

The Navigation Center has proved to be an attractive option for many people who previously lived outdoors. Compared to most congregate shelters it is not crowded and has space for partners, pets and belongings. There are multiple sleeping rooms, each with fewer than ten people. But these are still shared spaces, with shared bathrooms, unlike supportive housing and hotel rooms. We lowered the capacity of the Navigation Center at the start of the pandemic. Each choice to improve the safety of those inside means that we must leave more people outside and unsheltered.

At the start of this pandemic we put protocols and structures in place to help us be as prepared as possible when we learn of new cases. We moved residents of our most congested shelter locations into hotels and larger spaces to allow for social distancing. Our internal COVID team continues to meet daily to track COVID symptoms reported across our 25 service locations.

This pandemic has highlighted limitations in the healthcare and shelter systems relied upon by marginalized people.

The team reviews symptom reports, arranges follow-up with a medical professional, coordinates testing, tracks results, facilitates contact tracing when we learn of positive cases, and coordinates referrals to isolation and quarantine sites operated by King County.

The Navigation Center outbreak noted above was first discovered by a DESC nurse conducting a COVID test for a symptomatic guest who was then referred to our COVID team for follow-up.

DESC staff continue to go above and beyond to prevent the spread of this virus. They practice physical distancing, wear masks (and personal protective equipment as needed), provide masks for clients and encourage their use, and clean our spaces thoroughly. They also assess clients for symptoms and facilitate testing as soon as possible.

This pandemic has highlighted limitations in the healthcare system, particularly for marginalized people. Some of our clients have declined to accept care from or remain at isolation and quarantine sites because they are in unfamiliar locations and have not always supported people with substance use disorders. People are understandably afraid of going through withdrawal with no support. For others, they experience mild to no symptoms of Covid-19, so do not believe that isolation is needed. We continue to work closely with local officials to advocate for systems changes to better serve the most vulnerable among us.

When isolation and quarantine are required for safety, every member of society must have access to safe and secure housing.

These recent positive cases have again highlighted the need to abandon congregate shelter settings. For years we’ve been saying “Housing is Healthcare.” This pandemic has proven this true both for the people we serve but also for the wider community.

When isolation and quarantine are required for safety, every member of society must have access to safe and secure housing. Neglecting this need for some results in a less safe community for everyone. We are hard at work on creating as many new units of permanent supportive housing as we can, and are also trying to find long-term options for our shelter programs so that when people need shelter they can reside in individual rooms rather than congregate settings.