UPDATE, Aug. 26: King County public health officials say one person has died in connection with the Harborview Hall outbreak. The man, who was in his 70s, died Aug. 7 and had "underlying medical conditions," public health officials said. The King County Medical Examiner's Office lists COVID-19 as one of the causes of death.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases have risen in King County’s homeless population throughout the summer, fueled by an outbreak at a shelter and increased transmission in the broader community, according to county statistics and health officials.
In the first three weeks of August, 68 people identified as homeless or recently homeless have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data compiled by King County.
That’s more such cases than in May or June, and it's on track to surpass the 90 cases in the homeless population diagnosed in July.
One cause for the rise in cases is an outbreak at the Harborview Hall shelter in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood.
Testing has uncovered 27 cases at the shelter in August, said Felicia Grant, a captain in the Salvation Army who oversees Harborview Hall. The shelter serves about 75 men and women on a typical night.
Testing started after one person staying at the shelter was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive, King County public health officials said.
It’s the largest outbreak at a shelter in King County since the spring.
Grant said the experience was like responding to a natural disaster.
“You have a population that’s at risk,” she said. “The first instinct is, ‘How do we mitigate that risk? How do we reduce the exposure? How do we help isolate what’s in our facility that has limited isolation? What is the best way to support the client who is sometimes already at compromised health?’
“It was intense,” Grant added. “I won’t lie. It was very intense.”
Anyone who tested positive at Harborview Hall was isolated in a room of the shelter while awaiting a ride to a county-run isolation facility in Issaquah, Grant said.
Throughout the county, the first three weeks of August have seen 39 total cases in shelters, including Harborview Hall; five cases in housing for people coming out of homelessness; two in daytime service centers for people without homes; and 22 among people who are not enrolled in services, including people who are unsheltered.
Throughout Washington state, nonprofit and government officials have taken steps to prevent coronavirus outbreaks in the homeless population, due to high rates of chronic diseases and other vulnerabilities, and the complexity of isolating sick people who don’t have a stable place to live. Some shelter operators have moved clients into individual hotel rooms to get them out of crowded settings.
Since the start of the pandemic, 11 people identified as homeless or recently homeless have died of COVID-19 in King County.
The outbreak at Harborview Hall was detected just days after a team from Public Health Seattle-King County assessed the shelter on Aug. 4 to recommend preventative measures, said Jody Rauch, a nurse with Public Health who leads the agency’s Health Engagement Action Resource Team, or HEART.
“Salvation Army is doing an amazing job of doing all the things that were recommended,” Rauch said.
Harborview Hall is an older building, without a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, Rauch said. But, she said, staff at the shelter kept windows and doors open to increase airflow in the building.
Grant said shelter staff took preventative steps like closing communal spaces such as the kitchen and frequently cleaning surfaces. But people staying at the shelter are allowed to come and go as they please, she said, and may have contact with people in the community.
Rauch said she believes the outbreak is a result of this summer’s rise in coronavirus transmission throughout the county and state, not a lack of prevention efforts.
“There’s really only so much you can do,” she said. “I think we’re just looking at disease transmission across our community. I think identifying a single source or point of origin is pretty difficult and sometimes impossible. Even doing the best measures, with enough transmission and asymptomatic transmission, there’s just a barrier we can’t overcome."