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ABQ reports 17 COVID-19 cases at homeless shelter

Program Director Carlos Sanchez staples flyers at the Westside Emergency Housing Center in March. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The City of Albuquerque announced 17 new COVID-19 cases linked to its West Side homeless shelter and has temporarily closed the facility to new residents.

The individuals who have tested positive are “in isolation and receiving medical care for their symptoms,” the city said in a news release Thursday afternoon. All had been sleeping in the shelter’s general population areas within a week prior to their diagnosis but the city does not know yet how many other people they had been in contact with.

About 400 people have been using the city shelter – established in an old jail about 20 miles northwest of Downtown – nightly. The city expects to keep it closed through Sunday and said people seeking an alternative are encouraged to call 768-HELP between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily.

The city takes temperatures and asks questions of all individuals seeking to use its shelter. Those with symptoms or those who have recently traveled to a high-risk area or been exposed to someone with COVID-19 are placed in isolation or quarantine and tested, according to the news release. Those who test positive are isolated in a hotel, and provided food and medical attention, the city says.

“Thanks to the work of our staff and our partners early on in the pandemic, we had the appropriate processes in place to quickly identify these individuals, isolate them and provide them with medical attention,” Roger Ebner, the city’s director of Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement. “We will continue to be diligent with contact tracing efforts to help minimize the spread of the virus. We are grateful that the number of cases in the homeless population has remained far lower here than in other cities, as well as far lower than predicted by national experts.”

The city says it has had 19 total cases at its shelter – including two in April – though it is difficult to know how many cases there have been among individuals who are homeless citywide.

Jenny Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said “it’s a really hard number to get” because many people without homes are not using shelters or being tested.

An official, single-night count last year identified 1,524 individuals as homeless in Albuquerque, but there are only 633 shelter beds citywide, according to a 2019 city-funded study.

The city convened a working group earlier this year to handle COVID-19 issues within the homeless population, bringing together other public agencies and such service providers as Health Care for the Homeless. Metzler said the collaboration seems to have helped the city avoid some of the problems other communities have experienced and said she believes this is Albuquerque’s first known outbreak within its unhoused population.

“Our medical teams and clinical teams feel very confident that, by coming together in this collective work group under the city’s leadership, we have absolutely mitigated what could’ve been even more disastrous,” she said.

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