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Pandemic, Wildfire Smoke and Overdoses Hit the Downtown Eastside

A shelter has reduced access after two staff COVID-19 cases and virus precautions have limited people’s ability to escape smoky air.

Jen St. Denis 15 Sep

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

As COVID-19 cases increase and the overdose crisis continues, some Downtown Eastside residents are now also struggling to deal with smoke-filled air as pandemic closures reduce indoor spaces where they can seek refuge.

The increase in COVID-19 cases had affected at least one local non-profit, which has stopped accepting new people into its homeless shelter after two staff members were infected.

Carmen Lansdowne, executive director of First United Church, said the positive cases — first detected two weeks ago — are a reminder that COVID-19 is present in the Downtown Eastside and underlines how important it is to follow public health advice to stay home when you are sick, try to stay two metres apart from others and wear a mask when you can’t.

Lansdowne said a staff member came to work Sept. 4 and told their manager they weren’t feeling well.

“And so they were sent home and to get a test,” she said. The next day, First United found they had tested positive.

Another staff member who works at three residential buildings First United runs also subsequently tested positive.

Lansdowne said First United immediately implemented its COVID-19 plan. No new shelter clients were accepted, residents were asked to wear masks, and staff were asked to work from home if possible. The shelter has been operating at reduced capacity since March, when COVID-19 restrictions first started in B.C.

Residents who don’t show symptoms are not being tested, Lansdowne said, but public health officials have been involved and are doing contact tracing and notifying everyone who had contact with the staff members who tested positive.

The shelter may resume taking new people Monday if no one else is infected by then.

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Two workers at First United Church’s shelter tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in reduced access for people living with homelessness. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Early in the pandemic, there were fears that a COVID-19 outbreak in the Downtown Eastside, where many people live with pre-existing health conditions, could be devastating.

The neighbourhood initially appeared to have been spared.

But now, along with a province-wide surge in COVID-19 cases, positive cases of the virus are also rising in the Downtown Eastside, leading the Union of BC Indian Chiefs to warn of a “wave” of cases.

Vancouver Coastal Health is warning of exposure at the West Pub, a bar in the West Hotel, between Aug. 20 and 30. Warning notices have also been reported in several other SRO buildings in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.

As COVID-19 cases increase, unhoused people in the neighbourhood are dealing with extremely smoky air caused by wildfires in Washington and Oregon with fewer places to shelter.

Lansdowne said in previous years when wildfire smoke affected air quality, First United invited people to take refuge indoors in its drop-in space.

That’s no longer an option because of COVID-19 precautions and reduced staff on site, she said.

The city announced Monday that three spaces would open to help Downtown Eastside residents get a break from the smoke: Carnegie Community Centre, Evelyne Saller Centre and Gathering Place Community Centre.

The city will also open the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch.

"These sites offer a limited number of spaces with high efficiency particulate air or MERV 13 filtering, which can support people struggling with respiratory issues," city staff said in a press release.

Chrissy Brett, an organizer of a tent city at Strathcona Park, said camp organizers and residents are more focused on preparing for an increase in COVID-19 cases than trying to mitigate the effects of wildfire smoke.

“We’ve had a few people tested, but they came back negative,” Brett said. Organizers are trying to plan solutions such as a COVID-19 isolation area at the camp, she said.

Because of the high number of vulnerable people who live in the neighbourhood, Vancouver Coastal Health says it has an Inner-City COVID-19 Response Strategy specifically for the Downtown Eastside.

The health authority says the rate of testing has been higher in the Downtown Eastside than in other neighbourhoods, while the rate of identified cases has been much lower. Vancouver Coastal Health says there were 48 identified cases in the local health area that includes the Downtown Eastside between January and July, compared to 88 to 202 cases in other local health areas in Vancouver.

Downtown Eastside service providers say the uptick in positive cases is a very recent phenomenon.

In an emailed statement, Vancouver Coastal Health said it was following up cases and their contacts in the Downtown Eastside as it did in other communities.

“We have specific measures related to homeless and marginally-housed people,” the statement said. “This includes providing supportive housing for people who are required to self-isolate but are not able to do so safely on their own.”

The health authority is underlining that overdoses continue to present a huge threat and are urging people to keep using overdose prevention sites.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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