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Tacoma homeless shelter sees more coronavirus cases as staff works to halt spread

Nativity House, operated by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, recorded the first known COVID-19 cases in Washington's homeless population in March.
Parker Miles Blohm
Nativity House, operated by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, saw its first case of COVID-19 last week.

A Tacoma homeless shelter has had four residents test positive for the novel coronavirus, so far the largest publicly disclosed outbreak in Washington state's homeless population.

Nativity House, operated by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, saw its first case last week. That man, who is in his 30s, appeared to be recovering shortly after he tested positive said Denny Hunthausen, who oversees Catholic Community Services operations in the South Sound.  

But, since then, three others have contracted the virus, Hunthausen said Monday. 

One new case is a resident who tested positive while already in isolation and under observation because of contact with the first man who fell ill, Hunthausen said.

Two more residents were confirmed to have the virus after they showed symptoms, Hunthausen said, but it wasn't clear if they got it from the first man. 

Shelter operators and outreach workers have rushed to prevent widespread outbreaks among people who are homeless, who are often in close quarters and already struggle with poor health.

That's come with difficult decisions. Nativity House has closed its day room, a space where hundreds of unsheltered people took refuge and got meals, as a social-distancing measure. The shelter continues to serve meals outside, on a deck.

"I think the shelter providers are in a tough situation," Hunthausen said. "We’re really just trying to protect the people we’ve already gotten in. I have to say, taking someone off the streets and into a mass congregant situation, it’s really not a safe thing to do. It’s a less safe thing to do. Unprecendented decisions here. It’s tough." 
Many shelter operators are screening people for symptoms upon entry into shelters. In Seattle, leaders have taken steps to spread out shelter populations, including opening up the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall as an overflow site for one of the city's busiest shelters, the Downtown Emergency Service Center. 

Some nonprofit and government officials are looking to hotels and motels as isolation or quarantine sites for people who have no private spaces to retreat to. 

Nativity House has moved 55 of its oldest and most vulnerable residents — about a third of the shelter's population — to individual rooms in a Tacoma hotel to protect them from the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. 

That move has allowed remaining residents at the 167-bed shelter to sleep farther apart, Hunthausen said.

"It’s stressful," Hunthausen said Monday. "Last week was very demanding for many, many folks because we were experiencing our first cases and really trying to get our most vulnerable out of harm’s way."

He estimates the hotel rooms may cost the nonprofit Catholic Community Services hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he hopes emergency funds from the state or county will eventually cover the cost. 

"We decided to do it and we still don’t know exactly how it’s going to be paid for," Hunthausen said. 

The only other publicly disclosed case of the virus in the state's homeless population appeared last week at the nearby Tacoma Rescue Mission.

Since then, no other residents or employees of that shelter have tested positive, and the sick resident has "received a clean bill of health," said Amelia Kaiser, executive assistant of the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

"Apparently he was tested toward the latter part of his illness," Kaiser said. "We are very glad to hear he is doing well."

The first and only known death of someone who's homeless from COVID-19 was reported last week in California.

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