We are in the midst of a public health crisis. As COVID-19 cases surge, we know that our best defense is to implement strong social distancing measures in order to slow the rate of transmission. If we fail to do so, our healthcare system will become overwhelmed and people who might otherwise have survived will die.
On April 7, 2020, Premier Jason Kenney revealed that AHS modelling predicts a “probable” case of more than 800,000 infections - almost 1 in 4 Albertans. According to Kenney “[t]hings could get much worse if we do not continue to follow the public-health orders around social distancing and personal hygiene.”
Emergency shelter in the City Chapel Church, Red Deer (source: Toronto Star)
Any form of overcrowding prevents safe social distancing, putting all of us at risk. This has raised the question of how to minimize transmission in homeless shelters, which are typically crowded environments.
Many have called upon the province to offer hotel rooms to those who are experiencing homelessness. This makes sense as most hotels are currently empty, and would offer the best chance for people to avoid crowded spaces that harbour the spread of infection. However, Alberta’s Minister of Community and Social Services alleges more time would be needed to put suicide prevention measures in place.
However, the Calgary Homeless Foundation is already setting up hotel rooms for people who need shelter and have COVID-19 symptoms, enabling these individuals to go into assisted isolation where they will receive treatment and food. With this period of social isolation expected to extend for months, these same accommodations should be made available for all those who require shelter, not just those showing symptoms.
It is now well-known that asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, or those with mild symptoms, are contagious. We also know there can be a delay between contact with the virus and the onset of symptoms. Moreover, there is often a lag between the onset of symptoms and the time the individual seeks treatment and gets tested. As a result, it is inevitable that some of the individuals staying in these shelters, spending the night in close proximity with many other people, will be contagious COVID-19 carriers. Healthy people will become infected, who will then go on to transmit the virus to other people in the community, who will transmit the virus to others.
Instead of providing shelter in empty hotels, the province has provided accommodations in venues such as convention centres and churches, which look like this:
Emergency shelter in the Telus Convention Centre, Calgary (source: Globe and Mail)
You don’t need to be an expert in infectious disease to look at these photos and know that these accommodations will lead to further transmission of COVID-19. In the words of one Edmonton man experiencing housing instability, “If we were supposed to stay away from each other, why are [they] grouping together hundreds of people?”
As Albertans are told to undertake social distancing, it is counterproductive to simultaneously corral those who are experiencing homelessness to crowded spaces. To refuse safe and available spaces for people who need them during a pandemic is poor public health policy. Social distancing is our only hope of avoiding disaster over the coming weeks. These measures are only effective if everyone socially isolates. Preventing transmission among our most vulnerable populations, including those experiencing homelessness, is not only the right thing to do, it is in the best interest of the public health and safety of all Albertans.
About the author
Evan Galbraith has a MSc Health, Population and Society from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he studied social epidemiology and population health. He lives in Calgary and has worked on public policy municipally and provincially in Alberta.