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West Side shelter, MDC grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks

Westside Emergency Housing Center staffers speak in the courtyard on Tuesday. The city’s largest homeless shelter is currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Almost 100 people now have tested positive, and four are currently hospitalized, following a COVID-19 outbreak at Albuquerque’s largest homeless shelter.

Meanwhile, the virus is wreaking havoc at the county jail, where 204 inmates and more than a dozen staff have tested positive in the past two weeks.

Officials say the numbers are not necessarily driving New Mexico’s recent COVID-19 surge, but are likely a reflection of it.

New Mexico’s rolling average of new COVID-19 cases is the highest it has ever been. The metro area – which includes Bernalillo County – currently has the highest virus spread rate of New Mexico’s five regions, according to the latest state COVID-19 modeling.

“While site-specific cases certainly contribute to the alarming rate of spread, COVID-19 is spreading all across New Mexico because New Mexicans are giving it the opportunity to spread,” New Mexico Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said in an email. “Masking, distancing and limiting where we go need to be done in tandem to limit further spread of this virus.”

The homeless shelter outbreak at the city-owned Westside Emergency Housing Center has affected 84 residents and 14 staff since last week, according to numbers Mayor Tim Keller provided Tuesday during a news briefing at City Hall.

That includes five new shelter cases since the city last provided an update on Sunday.

Officials say the city is coordinating with several other agencies – including health care organizations and the state of New Mexico – to manage the response, which has included temporarily isolating some residents in local hotels.

The outbreak also has prompted shelter staff to require mask usage among residents, something that was not done consistently before, according to Dr. Laura Chanchien Parajón, a University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center physician contracted by the city to serve as the shelter’s medical director.

“We did really want to have them have wear masks at all times, but exactly the same thing that happened in our general population happened at the shelter (during the pandemic) – at first, everyone wore their masks and was really concerned. During the summer, people just kind of lapsed,” she said.

Parajón said the new outbreak was an example of “community spread” as cases were found in every pod at the shelter. Prior to this month, the shelter had identified just three total cases inside the facility since March, though it had also screened out some cases via temperature checks and questioning performed after residents get off the bus, but before they enter the facility.

Shawn Fees and his dog walk on Jim McDowell Road after leaving the West Side shelter on Tuesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

About 270 people were using the shelter – created inside an old jail about 20 miles northwest of Downtown – when the new cases began emerging, and Parajón said the coordinated response by the city and its partners prevented a worse situation.

Keller said the city has expected – and prepared for – this kind of outbreak, given the rapid spread seen among people who are homeless in other parts of the country.

“We were prepared for this early on, and this … is the first time we’ve had to use a lot of these protocols,” Keller said.

Not including the new Albuquerque shelter outbreak, the New Mexico Department of Health had confirmed 43 COVID-19 cases among the homeless population in Bernalillo County and another 66 who stay at homeless shelters elsewhere in the state, though experts say it is difficult to track the true infection levels in people who are not housed.

Down the road some, officials are trying to get a grip on a dire situation developing at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Julia Rivera, an MDC spokeswoman, said that, aside from the 204 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates, 60 more are awaiting test results and another 600 were tested Tuesday. A total of 17 staff members are currently infected.

COVID-19 has trickled into the facility, which has now had 268 cases, since the pandemic began – but the number of cases has doubled since Oct. 1.

Rivera said the spike in positive cases is a result of facilitywide testing and not due to an increase of new inmates off the street.

“There is obviously community spread within the facility,” Rivera said, adding that they are weighing their options on faster testing and upping the ante on disinfecting equipment.

Rivera said they have acquired two foggers, which look like a “Ghostbusters backpack,” that spray a hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectant over large areas, such as pods, cells and common areas. She said staff will be using the foggers throughout the day, every day, in the facility.

Rivera said they have been testing incoming inmates at the five- to seven-day mark, but the facility aims to do more rapid testing and point-of-entry type testing.

“The New Mexico Department of Health recommends that we test a little bit sooner to catch people that are coming off the streets,” she said. On the inside, Rivera said stopping spread comes down to the inmates.

“You’re only as good as the inmate that does listen to you,” she said. “You can give them all the tools – but if they don’t use them – we can’t force somebody to social distance, we can’t force somebody to wear their mask.”

Rivera said they give inmates all the guidance and gear – masks are required and provided – that they need to stop the spread, but “above and beyond that, there’s not really much we can do.”

When it comes to releasing inmates who have tested positive, Rivera said the Health Department is aware of their condition and they advise them to quarantine but – in the end – their hands are tied.

“It’s on them to self-quarantine once they’re released,” she said.

Another county facility affected by the virus is the detox center, formally known as MATS, where a COVID scare prompted the facility to shut down intakes.

Bernalillo County spokesperson Evan Gonzalez said a client at the CARE detox center tested positive for the virus on Thursday shortly after leaving the facility.

Since then, he said the facility has not been taking any new clients or intakes as they test the entire facility. They are still waiting on “a handful” of test results and are referring people to other treatment centers in the meantime.

“We don’t want to turn them away,” Gonzalez said.

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