Since mid-December, 30 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus at a hotel housing more than 200 homeless people in Renton, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.
It’s the most seen since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic at any of the hotels the county is using to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 among homeless people. The Red Lion Hotel in Renton was opened by the county to keep them out of crowded bunk-bed or mats-on-the-ground shelters where officials feared COVID-19 could spread like wildfire.
Earlier this month, Renton City Council passed a mandate that the hotel shelter be vacated starting in June 2021. At the same time, the number of coronavirus cases among people living in homeless shelters has increased.
After a quiet summer with few cases and a fall with only a few isolated spikes, 226 cases — including those of employees — have been connected to King County shelters and service sites or meal programs in the last month of 2020.
“We’ve had more cases of COVID-19 reported across the board in King County in recent weeks than ever before in the outbreak,” public health spokesperson Kate Cole wrote in an email.
While the largest outbreaks earlier this year were concentrated in shelters where people share living space — a scenario the Red Lion and other hotel shelters were created to avoid — this month’s biggest outbreaks have been in private housing for formerly homeless people.
Catholic Community Services’ Noel House in Seattle, where 40 women stayed in cubicle rooms, saw 17 cases earlier in December, and Plymouth Housing’s Pacific Apartments in Seattle, which hosts more than 100 formerly homeless people, saw 20 cases.
The rise in cases at the Renton hotel is likely not so much an outbreak coming from one person, as COVID-19 has spread widely at this point among the homeless population, said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which runs the shelter.
“Honestly my fear would be this is what it’s like everywhere,” Fay said, “a reflection of how prevalent COVID is at this point.”
The cases aren’t connected to individuals who are spending time with one another, Fay said, and testing at the Red Lion — facilitated by the Seattle Flu Study, a research effort which pivoted to novel coronavirus testing after the pandemic hit — runs six days a week, far more prevalent than at any of the other shelters or facilities Fay runs.
At the same time, there have been only a handful of cases found in Seattle’s sprawling outdoor homeless camps — perhaps because testing there hasn’t been nearly as robust as places like the Red Lion, or perhaps because people there spend most of their time outdoors, experts said in a Dec. 26 Seattle Times story.
Nonprofits that work with the homeless population have upped cleaning regimens, required masks, and ordered delivery to try and keep in the spread — but it’s not enough, Fay said. At the Red Lion, staff closed down the lobby and any areas where people can congregate, delivering all meals to residents’ rooms and requiring masks and goggles or a face shield for all staff. All shelter residents who tested positive have gone to King County’s isolation and quarantine facility in Kent.
“We’ve changed our programming to make sure we can do everything we can to make sure people stay in their rooms and have no reason to go places,” Fay said. “To me, it highlights we can’t get this vaccine here fast enough. We anticipated this winter would be difficult, and it’s delivered.”
The Red Lion Inn in Renton houses homeless people who, before the pandemic, were staying in one of downtown’s largest shelter for its most vulnerable people — many of whom have serious mental illness, substance use disorders or disabilities.
The inn has also become a major flashpoint around homelessness in Seattle’s suburbs: This month, the Renton City Council passed an emergency ordinance to get the county to move half of the hotel’s residents by the beginning of summer, and the rest out by the end of the year.
Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone wrote in an email that the county and shelter staff hadn’t notified him or anyone at the city — that they were informed by the fire department. Pavone did not immediately respond to further questions.
A previous version of this article misstated the number of people staying at Noel House and the nature of their accommodations.