Coronavirus cases have risen dramatically in King County’s shelters and housing for homeless people, and public health officials reported Monday that a man died in a facility for people with no place to quarantine in.
The county said Monday it now has 112 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, among its homeless population or people working at shelters or service sites. Less than two weeks ago, on April 7, there were only 27 confirmed cases.
Meanwhile, among the state’s overall population, new cases announced by health officials have risen slightly in the last week but stayed far below the late-March and early-April peak. As of Monday, the Washington Department of Health reported 12,085 total COVID-19 infections, including 652 deaths — an additional 295 cases and 18 deaths from the day before.
The bulk of the cases remains in King County, which is now reporting 5,259 infections and 358 deaths. New deaths were also confirmed in Snohomish, Spokane, Whatcom and Yakima counties.
The man who died at the Kent isolation and quarantine facility was in his 60s, and was found unresponsive Monday morning by medical staff, according to a county press release. He used to be homeless, but had been housed for more than a year in shared Single-Room Occupancy housing run by Operation Nightwatch, a faith-based shelter and housing provider, according to the Rev. Rick Reynolds, the organization’s executive director.
Monday’s death was the second this month at that housing facility, where there are reduced-rent rooms but tenants share kitchens and bathrooms, Reynolds said.
Other formerly homeless clients of local service providers have also passed away: One was living at a permanent supportive housing complex run by the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), and another was in an apartment but still a client of DESC, according to Dan Malone, executive director of DESC.
Seventy people are currently staying at the Kent motel where the man died, the county press release said.
“We are all saddened by the death of our guest,” said a statement from Leo Flor, Director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services and Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We will continue to work around the clock to ensure that all King County residents, including those without a home, have a dignified place to be when receiving care for this virus.”
There hasn’t been a reported death in any of King County’s crowded shelters, where there have been efforts to spread sleeping mats 6 feet apart and move hundreds of people into overflow shelters at Seattle Center and community centers around the city. King County has also moved around 400 homeless people into hotel rooms to slow the spread of the disease.
Despite this, clusters of the illness have occurred in places like the Lazarus Center in South Seattle and an emergency overflow shelter at Airport Way. Each location had 16 cases as of Monday, and both are run by Catholic Community Services.
Malone told The Seattle Times in an interview last week that his organization, DESC, had been averaging one new case a day for about two weeks.
There hadn’t been any significant outbreaks at a single DESC location, Malone said, but he worried about the lack of testing available to clients and staff. Without widespread testing, avoiding larger outbreaks is more difficult, Malone said.
“I’m definitely concerned that we’re going to have more cases,” Malone said. “There ought to be much more targeted testing happening.”
There’s no way to remove the risk of coronavirus spreading in a congregate shelter, Dr. Stephen Hwang of the University of Toronto told The Seattle Times earlier this month.
“Think of a shelter as kind of like a giant college dormitory. Even if the people are sleeping two or three to a room, and there’s bathrooms that are shared, there’s still going to be an increased risk of spread,” said Hwang, who has studied respiratory illnesses and their spread in shelters. “You can make them safer, but you can never make them as safe as we would like them to be.”
Reynolds knew both men who passed away, who used to be homeless and lived in shared housing above the Operation Nightwatch shelter. Even though they weren’t staying in a congregate shelter, and everyone at Operation Nightwatch’s shelter has tested negative for coronavirus, Reynolds was frightened at the close call.
“You get into this business because you want to do people some good, right?” Reynolds said. “Extend life and give options to poor people. But if the options are all going to make them sick or die … it’s very troubling. I can’t get my mind around it yet.”
Staff reporters Sydney Brownstone and Elise Takahama contributed to this report.