Alix McLachlan is relieved she asked the right questions to a social worker who was involved in transitioning a homeless person from Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital to Red Road Lodge earlier this month.
McLachlan, the director of operations of Red Road, says if she hadn’t, all the men living under her roof could have been at risk for getting COVID-19.
Red Road is a supportive housing facility that takes in men who are homeless, suffering with mental health issues or struggling with addiction. The Main Street facility has 47 self-contained suites with a common kitchen and meeting room. They are referred to the lodge from other non-profit agencies, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the justice system.
McLachlan says she was contacted by a public health nurse in mid-November about taking in a man being released from hospital, who had nowhere to live.
“I didn’t ask the nurse if this person was COVID-positive. I just assumed she wouldn’t send someone positive here. It wasn’t until the next day, when I asked the social worker involved some questions, that it was revealed to me” that the man did have the illness, said McLachlan.
She says the social worker was surprised she hadn’t been told. She asked the public health nurse why she wasn’t given that information initially, and was told privacy legislation prohibits the nurse from disclosing that information, McLachlan said.
“I asked, ‘Wouldn’t COVID be an exception?’ [The nurse] said ‘No, we deal with infectious diseases all the time. It doesn’t matter if it is tuberculosis, the flu or COVID. We can’t share that information,'” said McLachlan.
“I asked her, ‘Even if it means putting other people at risk?’ She said not even then.”
COVID spreading among homeless, vulnerable
McLachlan said she refused the vulnerable man entry.
That came after Red Road had already had a case of COVID among one of its residents. A man who tested positive was released from hospital and wound up on the street again, and was referred to Red Road by another agency that didn’t know about his positive test.
McLachlan said the man had been living in one of the Red Road suites for three days before she found out he had COVID-19.
“When we found out, we had him self-isolate but he had already been around the others. He didn’t fully understand why he couldn’t come out of his room for 14 days, because he has fetal alcohol syndrome,” said McLachlan.
The man was eventually sent to one of the province’s self-isolation sites, but she wonders why he, and the other COVID-positive man referred to Red Road, weren’t instead taken there in the first place.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says space at “alternative isolation accommodation” sites “has been at a premium of late.”
But the spokesperson said care teams have “been able to make room or make alternate arrangements if absolutely necessary, to ensure individuals from the shelter population are housed safely where they can be supported in adhering to self-isolation protocols.”
McLachlan says her facility doesn’t have the staff to monitor people 24/7. Once staff go home at the end of the night, residents are able to come and go as they please.
She’s has now implemented a policy to safeguard residents at Red Road. They have to be tested for COVID before coming in and be cleared.
Right to privacy: WRHA
She says not sharing information about people who have COVID-19 is putting those who are already at risk in greater danger.
“One of the biggest concerns I have is that the hospitals are not obligated, and neither are any of the other agencies … to tell us the person they are sending is positive,” said McLachlan.
“All Manitobans have a right to the privacy of their personal health information,” said the Winnipeg health authority’s spokesperson.
“Any person with a COVID-19 diagnosis would be expected to have a self-isolation plan in place and a plan for follow up care in the community (if applicable) upon discharge from hospital. This would apply whether or not the person had consistent housing or not.”
For those who don’t have a home where they can self-isolate after being discharged, “alternative options would be explored.”
But McLachlan is worried it’s just a matter of time before the widespread, and deadly, outbreaks playing out in personal care homes in Manitoba will hit the homeless.
“Like the nursing homes, all they need is one person to come in and infect them. They are immune deficient, have mental health and addiction issues, and they are vulnerable. They could die,” said McLachlan.
She says she is wary of accepting any new clients from hospitals going forward.
“I am going to ask a lot more questions,” she said. “If they can’t reveal to me someone is positive, I am not going to house them.”
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