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Official: Alaska shelter virus outbreak part of testing gap

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Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 3:26 PM AKDT
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(AP) - A national expert on homeless medical care says a coronavirus outbreak at an Alaska shelter may be part of a lack of national strategy for testing members of the homeless population.

Alaska Public Media reported Tuesday that a recent outbreak at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage spread to dozens of residents who had stayed there and as of Sunday had infected at least 93 people.

When the first COVID-19 case was detected at the shelter, the resident who tested positive was no longer staying there.

Bobby Watt, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council based in Nashville, Tennessee, said there is a bigger issue than whether the Anchorage outbreak might have been caught earlier with regular testing.

“It’s hard to say that they should have done better, like that they should have known. Especially because there is no national testing strategy. At all,” Watt said.

Catholic Social Services Executive Director Lisa Aquino said the organization, which operates the Brother Francis Shelter, was coordinating with the city’s Emergency Operations Center on testing when the first case was detected.

“We had been working with them to figure out the logistics of that to make sure that there was enough non-congregate shelter available if there were positive cases,” Aquino said.

Watt said Brother Francis and other outbreaks illustrate the consequences of the lack of a broader strategy, forcing local health departments and shelters to make decisions about where to prioritize limited testing without access to all the necessary data.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not offer significant guidance on testing the homeless population, while organizations such as the National Health Care for the Homeless Council provide advice that is not always incorporated locally, Watt said.

“Unfortunately it is city by city, county by county, everyone is in their own department of health in their own resources, coming up with very different plans,” Watt said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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