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Rights + Justice
Municipal Politics

When It Comes to COVID-19, Union Gospel Mission Opts for Transparency

Instead of relying on health officials to share info, a DTES organization is announcing positive cases on its website.

Jen St. Denis 23 Sep 2020 | TheTyee.ca

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.

A social service organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has taken the step of announcing a positive COVID-19 case on its website in an attempt to give people accurate information about the illness, as well as measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

Union Gospel Mission says one resident in a transitional housing building it runs at 601 E. Hastings Street has tested positive. The person is self-isolating and is following public health advice.

UGM says the tenant didn’t have contact with people who stay at its homeless shelter located at the same address, or with frontline workers.

Jeremy Hunka, who handles communications for UGM, said it’s tricky to balance the need for privacy when it comes to health information with the need for timely and accurate information on a health threat that has caused an unprecedented global pandemic.

“Sometimes there are really good reasons to keep information confidential, like in order to prevent damaging stigma or stereotypes or unfair judgment against people who may have contracted the virus and to protect people’s health,” said Hunka.

“At the same time, we know a lack of clarity can also be problematic, because it often creates a vacuum of information. Which, when there’s nothing there to fill it, is inevitably filled with questions, anxiety, fear and maybe even rumours.”

Hunka said UGM has been providing masks to all residents and community members who visit the reception area, and already had worked to reduce the number of people sleeping in its shelter rooms. The relatively new shelter building was also built with infection control in mind, Hunka said.

Staff also have access to personal protective equipment — everything from gloves to masks and visors and gowns.

Before September, few COVID-19 cases were seen in the Downtown Eastside, a relief for many who feared an outbreak of the virus in the neighbourhood because so many residents have pre-existing health conditions.

And instead of a COVID-19 outbreak, the neighbourhood instead saw a sharp increase in overdose deaths as the illicit drug market was disrupted and became more toxic, and people visited overdose prevention sites less often.

But several housing providers and a union that represents hundreds of workers in the neighbourhood all say COVID-19 cases in the Downtown Eastside have risen dramatically over the past month. The uptick comes as cases continue to rise throughout the province.

There have also been concerns about transparency. On Sept. 11, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called on Vancouver Coastal Health to commit to “publicly report any cases in the DTES so that residents of the densely populated neighbourhood can take extra precautions for their health and safety.”

Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE Local 1004, also called for more information to be shared. The union represents over 700 workers at PHS Community Services Society, one of the largest service agencies operating in the Downtown Eastside.

Housing providers like PHS and Atira Women’s Resource Society have been leaving the decision of whether to inform residents and workers to Vancouver Coastal Health. The health authority does contact tracing for each positive case and informs people who have been in close contact with infected people.

In some cases, VCH also posts paper notices at buildings to inform people of the dates they may have been exposed to people who have tested positive.

Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira, said that realistically, building residents and staff are finding out about positive cases through social media posts and word of mouth. She said she’s focused on sending out daily or weekly newsletters with the latest information about how COVID-19 is spread and how to prevent transmission.

Abbott said most of the cases Atira is aware of have been among staff members, although a few tenants have also tested positive.

Micheal Vonn, CEO of PHS, previously told The Tyee that her organization is leaving all communication about positive cases up to Vancouver Coastal Health in order to protect the privacy of residents and staff.

Union Gospel Mission does lean towards communicating more information rather than less, Hunka said, but the organization is not committing to make every case public because situations may arise that require privacy rather than disclosure.

Meanwhile, Hunka said, other organizations who choose not to publicly disclose cases may be making decisions based on “very different scenarios and reasons that we’re not aware of.

“In our case we bring it back to our community and our [shelter] guests and made the initial call to release the information proactively, because we’re ultimately held responsible and accountable to our community,” Hunka said.

“We want to contribute to that respect and dignity by being trustworthy and open in this way.”

Vancouver Coastal Health says the rate of COVID-19 testing in the Downtown Eastside is higher than elsewhere in the region, allowing the health authority to quickly identify any new cases.

VCH also warns that the risk of overdose death is higher than the risk of COVID-19 for people who use illicit drugs. VCH says that Downtown Eastside residents who use drugs should continue to use overdose prevention sites, and should never use alone.  [Tyee]

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