TORONTO — A COVID-19 outbreak has surged among Toronto's homeless in the last 10 days with at least 135 cases, the majority of which come from one shelter that houses refugees.
Ten days ago, there were 30 cases of COVID-19 among the city's homeless.
But now there are 88 residents at the Willowdale Welcome Centre alone who have tested positive for the disease, according to recently released data from Toronto Public Health.
Officials say the majority of the cases at the shelter are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms of the disease.
Nimeh Al-Banna, who came to Canada from Jordan via Iraq, lives at the shelter and found out two days ago she tested positive for the disease.
"I have no symptoms. I am O.K.," she told The Canadian Press from her room at the shelter. "I am not scared and I am not worried."
However, Macdonald Scott, her immigration lawyer, is worried.
"She's a remarkably positive person, but I am scared for her," he said. "We have been calling for change at that shelter because it is too crowded and social distancing is impossible."
There are more than 200 residents at the shelter, all of whom were tested for the disease by health-care workers from the North York General Hospital over the weekend along with all the shelter's staff, according to Homes First, which runs the facility.
"We have made changes at the Willowdale Welcome Centre, including moving those who are at a higher risk to a hotel program, and isolating those who have tested negative in a separate area of the building.
The plan is to keep the remainder who have COVID-19 but without symptoms at the shelter. They are not allowed to leave for 14 days.
"I cannot go outside, so I am working on my English and am memorizing the Qur'an," she said.
Friday marked the first day of Ramadan, but she was disappointed that the doctor told her not to fast.
"It's O.K., Islamic law says it's O.K. for the sick to not fast, but I just don't feel sick, but I will listen," she said.
Local councillor John Filion said he was disappointed the province didn't allow for mass testing on the site at the time after the first positive case of COVID-19 came in two weeks ago.
On April 16, the province changed its guidelines to allow mass testing of homeless shelters. Provincial protocols previously did not allow for those in shelters to be tested en masse.
"I think we got lucky that more people aren't more seriously ill," he said.
The shelter arranged with the nearby hospital to perform mass testing, he said.
"I think the provincial testing protocols really did not work in this situation," Filion said.
Joe Cressy, a city councillor who is the chair of the board of health, said the city opened a 200-room hotel last week for those in the shelter system who tested positive for COVID-19. There are health-care workers on site.
About 130 people who have COVID-19 are currently recovering in that hotel, he said.
"It is a unique model because it is not a hospital nor is it a shelter," Cressy said. "The feedback we received has been very positive, so we plan to replicate this model."
The city had previously decided to use an "open-air congregate setting" — similar to large halls with beds — for a second site, but scrapped that idea, he said.
Now the city is finalizing a deal on a second hotel to be used the same way, Cressy said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press