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Concerns raised about coronavirus response after 2 staffers test positive at Baltimore homeless shelter

Staff at Baltimore’s Project PLASE homeless shelter learned in an email Wednesday that two of their co-workers had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Yet residents — several of them medically vulnerable — had not been notified as of Monday afternoon, according to a resident and a staffer. In addition, social distancing and hygiene protocols have not been enforced, they said.

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Mary C. Slicher, the founder and executive director of Project PLASE, said Sunday that she believed a manager informed residents Thursday and that the facility has been proactive in implementing hygiene protocols before and after its staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

However, on Monday she said she had learned that managers had not wished to violate the privacy of the infected staffers and instead staff discussed safe practices with the shelter’s approximately 40 residents.

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In recent weeks, homeless shelters — much like nursing homes — have emerged as potential hot spots for the novel coronavirus. In San Francisco, 70 people were infected at a single shelter. In New York City, 23 residents of homeless shelters have died of the disease, according to The New York Times.

In Baltimore, shelter managers and advocates say social distancing is difficult to enforce, and protective equipment is hard to come by. But the lack of communication at Project PLASE appears to run counter to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was particularly troubling to members of the Project PLASE community.

“It’s almost as if we don’t exist, we don’t mean nothing, and they can just do what they want to do and not tell us anything," said William Miller, 65, who has lived at Project PLASE’s Maryland Avenue shelter for the past nine months.

Slicher emailed staff members Wednesday to inform them that two workers at the shelter had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and “hence have been in contact with the PLASE shelter facilities.” The email said she then asked staffers to contact their doctors if they interacted with either infected staffer in the two days before they exhibited symptoms.

But Miller said no notice has been given to the residents about the infected staff members.

He said he was close with one of them and recently began coughing “constantly” and experiencing chest pain. Miller said he underwent a drive-thru COVID-19 test Saturday afternoon.

Miller said several residents, including himself, are HIV-positive or have otherwise compromised immune systems, putting them at greater risk of the virus.

A senior-level employee who was not authorized to speak on the record confirmed Miller’s account that residents have not been informed that staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Slicher said the two staff members who tested positive for COVID-19 have been away from the facility since the last week of March and that no staff members or residents have exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 in the weeks that followed.

The incubation period for COVID lasts from two to 14 days, according to the CDC.

Slicher’s email said the Baltimore City Health Department would conduct contact tracing for the two infected staff members.

Slicher said Sunday that she had met with health department officials and that two came to the facility Friday to review proper hygiene protocol. On Monday, she said the representatives had not recommended obtaining personal protective equipment.

Slicher added Monday that she attempted to obtain health supplies, such as disinfectant wipes and rubbing alcohol, through the Baltimore City Health Department but was referred to forms to request them. Slicher also said the facility submitted a supply request to the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services but had yet to receive them.

The shelter in recent weeks has purchased materials such as hand soap, water, and bleach, and the staff has conducted “intensive cleaning” since early March, Slicher said.

In response to multiple interview requests from The Baltimore Sun, Adam Abadir, a spokesman for the city health department, emailed a statement Monday, saying the agency “has been working with the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services to provide guidance and recommendations to shelter managers for preventing transmission of COVID-19. Additionally, [the health department] has been conducting in-person visits ... to provide guidance to facility managers.”

Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment) addresses homelessness in Baltimore by providing temporary housing, permanent housing and supportive services to homeless adults and families. It recorded $7.4 million in revenue for 2017, the most recent year for which tax filings were listed online.

Project PLASE, which helped more than 1,500 people between the summers of 2018 and 2019, is poised to expand, with a $24 million redevelopment of Whiteford Hall in southwest Baltimore’s Irvington neighborhood.

The CDC’s guidance for homeless shelters amid the pandemic includes informing those who might have been exposed and using multiple strategies to ensure proper social distancing. A CDC spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

“Never have they told the clients, had a conversation with the clients, and said, ‘We got staff members that have been [tested] positive for the coronavirus, so we would advise you to go to your doctor or try to get a test,’ ” Miller said. “They’re putting people’s lives in jeopardy without any thought at all."

Slicher’s Wednesday email said shelter staff and residents have been screened with a temperature check once a day for the 10 days prior. Slicher wrote that she was working to get touch-free infrared thermometers. She also recommended disinfecting areas that hands regularly touch at least four times a day.

Miller, who helped start the Bmore POWER organization, which passes out the opioid overdose prevention drug naloxone in areas of Baltimore hit hard by drug overdoses, said as far as he knows, Slicher’s cleaning and disinfecting recommendations haven’t been enforced.

The senior-level employee corroborated Miller’s account regarding a lack of enforcement of hygiene protocols.

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Miller said he’s seen only “some” staff members wear masks but that the practice has not been made mandatory. Miller also said residents haven’t been given masks and he recently went outside the facility to get two masks for residents.

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Slicher said Monday that 120 masks were given to staff two to three weeks ago and handed out to residents last week. She added that another batch of 150 masks was delivered Monday and the masks were in the process of being dispersed to residents and staff.

Slicher acknowledged that “there’s some challenges in a communal setting” with social distancing, but the facility is “doing the best we can,” including limiting the number of people in the dining area to eight to 10 people at a time.

Jeff Singer, former longtime president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, said Monday that practicing social distancing in a congregate setting is “pretty near impossible.”

“Even if the staff did the best job they could, it couldn’t work because of the physical setup,” Singer said.

The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services has worked in recent weeks to ease the packed setting in homeless shelters. In an email Monday to The Sun, spokesman James Bentley II wrote that last week the office facilitated the transfer of more than 150 residents at the three shelters operated by the city of Baltimore to motel rooms. Priority is given to residents over age 62 and those with underlying medical conditions.

To date, the office has not been notified of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents in shelters operated by the city. It’s unclear whether there have been any confirmed cases for residents at privately owned shelters such as Project PLASE.

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