COVID-19 hit these Tacoma homeless shelters early on. Then the outbreaks stopped. | KNKX

COVID-19 hit these Tacoma homeless shelters early on. Then the outbreaks stopped.

Jun 1, 2020

Two Tacoma shelters that disclosed the first known cases of COVID-19 in Washington's homeless population have avoided widespread outbreaks and now appear virus-free, the shelters' operators said.

Nativity House, operated by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, had four guests test positive for the coronavirus in March, raising fears that the virus could spread quickly through a population that shares sleeping and living spaces. 

Public health officials acted quickly to isolate those patients off-site and no additional cases emerged, said Denny Hunthausen, who leads Catholic Community Services operations in the South Sound.

He said public health officials tested 76 guests and staff at the shelter one morning in mid-May — nearly the entire shelter population, minus a few guests who declined tests — and found no positive cases.

"It's still a surprise to me, given the relative close proximity and people using common space and so on, that we didn't have some additional infection," Hunthausen said. 

"As we've all been learning as this thing has unfolded in our country over the last three months or so, this is a complex virus," he added.

Hunthausen said screening, sanitation and social-distancing policies at the shelter also may have helped prevent a widespread outbreak.

Staff at Nativity House, like at other shelters in the region, regularly checked guests' temperatures. They also moved about 60 guests deemed the most vulnerable, due to age or health conditions, to a nearby hotel, allowing remaining guests at the shelter to spread out.

People known to have been in close contact with someone who tested positive also were quarantined off-site, Hunthausen said.

"All of those things, without question, have had an impact," he said.

The Tacoma Rescue Mission, a nearby shelter that also saw guests fall ill early in the pandemic, appears to have have avoided a widespreak outbreak as well, operators said. 

Five men staying there tested positive in March and April, but the shelter has had no positive cases in more than a month said Amelia Kaiser, executive assistant at the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

Hunthausen said he believes the four Nativity House guests who tested positive all recovered off-site, and one or two may have returned to the shelter.

Nativity House has not admitted new guests for much of the pandemic as a safety precaution.

"That's put real pressure on what was already a burgeoning unsheltered homeless population," he said. "And now, because of these results coming back favorably, we're really examining that and seeing how we can carefully take in new folks."