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Kingston agencies try to set record straight about COVID-19 homeless response

Several community agencies who work with vulnerable populations in Kingston, Ont., spoke with local media Thursday.

The goal was to address what they characterized as “misinformation” circulating about the local response to the recent spread of COVID-19 among those experiencing homelessness.

“There seems to be some confusion around what is being done to support the most vulnerable in our community,” a letter from the group of agencies said.

Read more: Vulnerable, unvaccinated populations fueling rise in KFL&A COVID-19 case counts: MOH

“This confusion causes misconceptions community-wide that affect the trust in our community partners and we really want to use our limited time and resources working collectively on solutions and not responding to misinformation.”

The “community partner critical response group,” has been meeting daily to address the spread of cases among the unhoused over the last six weeks or so. The group consists of Addictions Mental Health KFL&A, United Way KFL&A, the City of Kingston, HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS), KFLA Public Health, Kingston Fire and Rescue, Home Base Housing, Kingston Police, Kingston Youth Shelter and Lionhearts.

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Thursday, representatives from the group felt that it was important to delineate exactly how community agencies have been working to address these cases following public scrutiny of their response.

According to a recent homelessness count, 200 people are living rough in the local community, and a recent explosion in local COVID-19 cases has hit this community particularly hard.

Ruth Noordegraaf, director of housing and social services with the city, said the onslaught of cases in the vulnerable population has led to a “perfect storm” of circumstances.

“We were working on both the winter response and at the same time found ourselves in a an increased number of positive cases,” she said.

The first positive case among the local vulnerable population was found Oct. 27, and widescale testing began Oct. 30, the group’s letter said.

COVID-19: Outbreak declared at Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub, 11 cases associated – Nov 2, 2021

The letter noted that access to shelters was cut off to curb the spread of the virus, which then caused an overflow of people potentially infected with COVID-19 living without a roof over their heads. Trailers near the Integrated Care Hub and motel rooms were offered for those needing to isolate.

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“Trailers are in short supply, but some were located and brought in as an alternative for individuals who were sick in their tents,” the group said.

Although food was arranged for those staying in the trailers, hydro was not hooked up until Monday. Still, some people continued to isolate in tents. Local housing advocate Chrystal Wilson has been critical of the trailer program, saying that heating was not provided and that people didn’t feel safe isolating in the trailers.

When the pandemic first began, the city of Kingston, along with KFL&A Public Health, assured the community there were contingency plans for a COVID-19 outbreak for those experiencing homelessness. First, the city earmarked the old Fairfield Manor West site as an isolation site for vulnerable communities, but staffing and renting that facility became too expensive, according to Bhavana Varma, executive director of the United Way KFL&A.

Over the course of the pandemic, Varma said isolation options have always been available, but they’ve changed forms depending on the needs of the community at the time. Currently, it seems, the two options for isolation are the trailers set up at the hub and motel or hotel rooms provided by the city.

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Varma said that in some cases, people chose not to use those two forms of isolation.

“With every individual, it’s a personal choice around whether they want to enter into isolation, whether we feel their needs have been met, whether they’re willing to be there,” she said.

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Kingston council votes through big spending on health care, homeless support – Nov 18, 2021

She said some chose to be closer to areas and communities they were familiar with. Fairfield Manor West is nine kilometers away from the hub.

The partners admitted that space was an issue, but the real problem when the cases began to ramp up was staffing shortages.

“None of us anticipated this kind of staff shortage that we’re seeing right now. Again, a lot of the plans depend on having trained staff ready and able to deal with the crisis so much as we can make all the plans,” Varma said.

Noordegraaf added that the staff that do remain working with vulnerable populations, like those at the Integrated Care Hub, are burnt-out.

She said that along with added pressures caused by the pandemic, the opioid crisis has dramatically affected staff.

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“People are stressed. That staff has been working there day-in, day-out, and there is also not necessarily the light at the end of the tunnel,” Noordegraaf said.

Read more: Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub faces political review over its effectiveness, security

Gilles Charette, executive director of HARS, which helps run the Integrated Care Hub, said staff have attended to more than 500 drug poisonings since the hub opened last year.

“There are two things happening simultaneously. You’ve got the COVID pandemic and the epidemic of drug poisoning in a community that is vulnerable and predisposed to higher levels of both of these things. So it complicates the work a great deal,” Charette said.

Charette was the only representative on the call who mentioned one instance of “misinformation” he felt was harming service providers in the region.

He said although the COVID-19 outbreak was initially tied to the Integrated Care Hub, the health unit later found out that these cases were more linked to widespread community transmission. Charette said by that time, the damage had been done to the hub’s reputation.

“The unfortunate negative consequences of that is that people who need to access a really important service are afraid to then access that service,” he said.

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Read more: Kingston advocate says unhoused not adequately protected from recent COVID-19 outbreak

When the outbreak was first declared, Wilson, the local housing advocate, specifically took issue with messaging from Dr. Piotr Oglaza, who was then calling the outbreak “low risk,” since he thought those experiencing homelessness were a fairly “isolated group.”

Kingston advocate says unhoused not adequately protected from recent COVID-19 outbreak – Nov 5, 2021

Wilson sent a letter to Oglaza afterwards arguing that the unhoused population “connects to all parts of the broader Kingston community.” At that time, Wilson took it upon herself to bring tests to people living outside the isolation options provided by city partners, and said she was finding several more cases than what was being reported.

Read more: Ontario study finds people on homeless spectrum hit hard by COVID-19

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She argued that leaving cases potentially untracked put the larger community at risk for COVID transmission. When pushed with Wilson’s arguments on Nov. 5, the health unit replied: “While this is a transient population the risk of exposure to the general population from cases among this group is low and does not warrant public notification.”

In the end, Wilson’s concerns were founded.

“We initially thought, as I said, it was actually an outbreak at the ICH. But now we’ve come to realize it was community spread,” said Adrienne Hansen-Taugher, manager of infection prevention and control as well as contact and case management.

Despite how things have progressed over the past month and a half, the agencies said that they have been working hard to try to address the situation, but admitted the way things stand now are not perfect.

Actions to improve the response include: providing more resources to local shelters; offering more hotel and motel rooms for isolation; working with local tent encampments to provide support on the ground; providing mobile testing and vaccination clinics; and providing greater access to necessities of life services.

Also, the group is looking for volunteers to help provide these services and extra help to the community. Although a call out for this help has been made, the agencies are still looking for more help to take some of the pressure off staff during this time.

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