City shelters are in a vulnerable state during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with limited space conditions and concentrations of vulnerable people colliding at the confluence of two overlapping public health emergencies.
“That’s the thing, we still remain in a public health emergency for the overdose crisis,” said Bob Hughes, executive director of ASK Wellness Society, which provides outreach services, supportive housing and other initiatives in the city.
The opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016 and only began to ease in 2019, with B.C. recording 981 deaths — down from 1,543 in 2018 — last year.
“We’re still conducting wellness checks for people who may be at risk for overdoses,” Hughes said.
But ASK staff have changed the way they operate in the more than 600 units overseen by the organization in the region.
“What we’re very conscious of is that we have people with very compromised health conditions, including respiratory illnesses, tobacco consumption and generally older age,” Hughes said.
Changes include switching to paper plates and plastic utensils, not crossing the threshold into individual units unless absolutely necessary, no longer offering housekeeping services and advising residents not to bring bring guests in the buildings.
The agency has also restricted its front counter services in Merritt and Kamloops; however, access to phone and internet services remains in those areas. Services also remain available by phone and ASK is serving people that way wherever possible.
In terms of supplies, Hughes said limited availability of masks is a problem across the health and housing sectors, but that the agency has prepared in every way it can, ensuring adequate cleaning and food supplies are available and other personal protective equipment is at hand when required.
Similar risks are present at CMHA-run operations.
Acting operations leader Alfred Achoba said his team has been proactive with an increased cleaning schedule, encouragement to wash hands frequently and encouraging social distancing, as much as it is possible in the kind of environment where residents live.
“During meals, we’re trying to keep people apart, preventing cross-contamination and working diligently to have an area within the shelter and our supportive housing to isolate people and quarantine them if the need should arise,” Achoba said.
Shelter space at Emerald Centre has residents staying four to a room. Depending on how the beds are oriented in the space, Achoba said he has done his best to ensure social distancing recommendations can be adhered to.
“We’re doing our best. It’s not really ideal, because we’re basically an essential service, and there’s no other place for our folks to go,” he said. “We’re not going to turn anyone away. We’re going to do what we can with all of the resources we have.”
Achoba said residents at places like Emerald Centre and Rosethorn House have been playing their part, noting staff have been encouraging them to keep their distancing from one another and ensure healthy habits in times of pandemic.
He said the CMHA is also doing its best to screen incoming people for COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, checking temperatures and contacting 811 when necessary.
“I think the biggest message is for everyone to be patient and play their part in proper hygiene. Wash your hands,” he said.
Achoba said he feels good about seeing CMHA and other agencies, including ASK Wellness, Interior Health and BC Housing, among others, work together during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Mustard Seed shelter space remains open, with beds available, according to Achoba, on Wednesday.
According to an update posted on its website, Mustard Seed has increased sanitation and hygiene measures at shelters and drop-off locations, put together an emergency response team and implemented other safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Mustard Seed said at least 60 per cent of the people it serves have pre-existing health conditions. The organization has created a pandemic relief fund and is accepting donations online at theseed.ca/donate/Kamloops.