Service providers say, and city officials confirm, that Trent has lacked handwashing facilities necessary to prevent disease transmission.
Communicable diseases are currently spreading throughout the Spokane shelter system and unhoused community, including the Trent shelter, Camp Hope, and various treatment and supportive housing facilities. “We’re seeing a lot of viral activity in the shelters, which is not unexpected for this time of year,” said Kelli Hawkins, the public information officer for the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD).
Outbreaks are defined as any location where two or more people are sick with a disease. SRHD shared the following outbreaks:
- Influenza is almost everywhere, including at the Union Gospel Mission’s Men’s shelter, House of Charity, Trent and Family Promise shelters.
- At the Trent Shelter and Camp Hope, there is a gastrointestinal disease outbreak that is possibly Norovirus, but has not been confirmed to be Norovirus.*
- The Family Promise Shelter and Catholic Charities Rising Strong drug treatment and housing program are both at the tail end of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) outbreaks.
- There are COVID-19 outbreaks at Miryam’s House, which offers supportive transitional housing for single women, and Pioneer’s Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Facility.
*Norovirus is confirmed through a stool test, and several physicians and public health officials told us stool samples are very hard to retrieve from portapotties because of the open hole where traditional toilets have a bowl.
Amid the outbreaks of respiratory and gastrointestinal disease, Trent Shelter staff, health officials and city communications director Brian Coddington confirmed problems with handwashing facilities at the shelter. “Sinks have been out of order about a week,” according to a Trent Shelter staff member, whose identity RANGE is protecting because of fears of workplace reprisals. “I’m not exactly sure why we have gone so long without working sinks. I do know there was a part that melted on the inside of one sink, so they were unplugged to avoid further damage and possible fire.”
In an email, Kelli Hawkins of SRHD confirmed that the handwashing sinks at TRAC, “did not operate well due to the cold temperatures. We were told an electrician was scheduled for 11/30 to fix this issue (enabling the stations to provide warm water). I do not have an update as to whether that was completed or not.”
In addition to having working sinks, the health district has recommended adding more handwashing options at the facility.
“There have been recent issues with the handwashing stations related to the cold weather,” Coddington wrote. “A heater is being installed to resolve those issues. The Salvation Army is also working on doubling the number of stations.”
Camp Hope currently has one handwashing sink that is only available until 5 p.m. when the tent at the facility closes, said Julie Garcia. Garcia said they are going to add another sink that will be operating at all times, but that it has been a challenge because the sink requires the use of a generator. “If we could get water and electricity from the city we could do more,” Garcia said. The Inlander’s Nate Sanford has reported that the city has withheld access to electricity and water at the encampment as it attempts to gain access to the names of Camp Hope residents and impose a deadline for removal of the camp.
Garcia said that additional mitigation measures have been put in place at the encampment, including designating three port-a-potties specifically for people feeling sick, cleaning the toilets every hour, and reducing access to and requiring masking and hand washing in the tent adjacent to the camp where service providers meet with camp residents.
Hawkins said SRHD staff have been visiting area shelters and Camp Hope to provide additional guidance on how to manage the outbreaks. That includes creating isolation areas at the Trent Shelter, a converted warehouse. “What we’ve asked them to do is set up an isolation space and they can do that utilizing a walled off room,” Hawkins said. The goal of these isolation areas is to separate people depending on their illness and to try to mitigate the spread of illness throughout the shelter. “A respiratory virus is spreading, so now it’s time to step up mitigation measures. That’s what these recommendations are asking them to do.”
Hawkins shared the following recommendations for the Trent Shelter and Norovirus outbreak response with RANGE.
TRAC Walk Through Recommendations by RANGE Media on Scribd
Bob Lutz, the former Spokane County Health Officer, has been providing medical services at Trent as well as throughout the shelter community and Camp Hope, and has serious concerns about the conditions at Trent. “It’s glaringly obvious that facility is not equipped to deal with communicable disease,” said Lutz.
The lack of handwashing stations was a major concern, especially if the gastrointestinal disease at the facility is confirmed to be Norovirus. “I had a patient with 9-10 bowel movements in a day,” Lutz said. “Each time he would have to go out to the bathroom in the cold and then there’s nowhere to wash hands afterwards.”
“Norovirus is incredibly contagious — hand sanitizer is not enough,” Lutz said.
Lutz also said that, as far as spreading disease is concerned, people are safer in tents than at Trent. “I have more concerns about disease spreading in a tightly packed shelter in a warehouse that wasn’t designed for human habitation,” Lutz said. “We have a facility that’s not able to provide mitigating or preventative measures. They don’t have the ability to spread people out.”
The consequences of the diseases spreading in shelters can be potentially more severe than in the general population, Lutz said, because many in the unhoused community have preexisting health conditions and risk factors.
The vulnerability of many at Trent was tragically evident in the early morning hours today (Dec. 1), when a 65 year-old man was found not breathing. CPR was started and emergency services were called around 6:30 am. First responders pronounced him dead just after 7. In a meeting of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, Ken Perine of the Salvation Army said the man died due to “an underlying medical condition,” but no autopsy has been performed. It’s not clear if he was suffering from a virus or bacterial infection.
Additional reporting by Luke Baumgarten.