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Thunder Bay agencies ramp up efforts to help the homeless in the pandemic

Use of a dedicated isolation shelter for vulnerable people is increasing.
Cynthia Olsen (2)
Cynthia Olsen chairs Thunder Bay's Vulnerable Populations COVID-19 Planning Table and the Isolation Shelter Command Team

THUNDER BAY — A dedicated COVID-19 isolation shelter for the homeless and other vulnerable people in Thunder Bay is getting more use as the incidence of COVID-19 worsens in the community.

Cynthia Olsen, chair of the city's Vulnerable Populations COVID-19 Planning Table, says the shelter started to get busier near the end of December.

"Certainly we've seen an increase in usage over the last couple of weeks. That's why we've increased our meetings, just to be sure we keep on top of what's  happening, trend-wise...with widespread community spread."

On Wednesday, the shelter had about 20 people voluntarily self-isolating.

St. Joseph's Care Group is currently the lead agency operating it, and provides professional staff to ensure adherence to infection prevention and control standards.

The shelter was initially set up in a Thunder Bay hotel in the spring of 2020, shortly after the onset of the pandemic.

Since then, staff have logged over 2,000 instances of self-isolation in the facility.

Olsen said "the community is only as safe as its most vulnerable people."  

She also chairs the Isolation Shelter Command Team, a subsection of the COVID-19 Planning Table.

In light of the upsurge in cases, Olsen said the command team has ramped up its meeting schedule from about every two weeks to three times weekly.

Besides St. Joseph's Care Group and city representatives, its membership includes the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board, and Thunder Bay Fire Rescue.

The command team also provides regular briefings to at least a dozen other stakeholder groups.

Olsen said that by working together, local agencies are able to identify needs across multiple sectors and populations, and create a coordinated response.

Last year, they jointly developed protocols to support the isolation of homeless individuals and ensure they are connected to appropriate services while minimizing the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations.

However, Olsen said the pandemic continues to create unique demands on those working in and utilizing the emergency shelter system, and those experiencing precarious housing.

"Public health regulations like physical distancing mean not as many people can be served in one location, and individuals who are experiencing homelessness have no safe ways to self-isolate."

Ongoing funding for the operation of the isolation shelter is provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

COVID-19 outbreaks have been declared in recent days at Shelter House and at the Thunder Bay District Jail, which also experienced a particularly severe outbreak that began a year ago at this time.

When asked how concerned her committees are about the jail situation, Olsen said, "We developed really strong pathways during the last situation in the community. We know it's actually community spread. It's community-wide. We're in a different situation than we were in 2021. We have a different variant."

She added "We're doing all we can to ensure that all the partners who require the pathway have clear access to mitigate risk in the community...and provide safe spaces for individuals to self-isolate who otherwise wouldn't be able to."



Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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