‘A large outbreak’ at Anchorage homeless shelter grows to 61 coronavirus cases

A boxy red and gray building
The Brother Francis Shelter in July, 2020. The shelter has been operating at about half of its normal capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently able to house 114 people. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The number of COVID-19 infections linked to the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage has spiked to 61, health officials confirmed Thursday.

“We are in the middle of a large outbreak at the shelter,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.

City health officials say they’ve confirmed infections in 60 people who have stayed at the homeless shelter and one staff member. And they expect the outbreak has impacted more.

“It is likely that this outbreak extends beyond the residents in this one shelter and widespread testing of persons experiencing homelessness and their care providers is needed,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, the Anchorage Health Department’s chief medical officer.

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So far, the outbreak has led to five hospitalizations. Four people have since been discharged, and one is still hospitalized.

All individuals who have tested positive are in isolation “at a secure and monitored location,” said a statement Thursday from the city’s health department and emergency operations center.

The city is now working with providers to test everyone at Anchorage shelters, soup kitchens and camps, the statement said. It says weekly testing will be needed for several weeks.

“This outbreak will likely grow and as it does, more people may require medical care and hospitalization,” Chandler said. “Health care providers should be on the lookout for people experiencing homelessness with serious illness.”

The city says all Anchorage shelters have been screening guests and staff for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms for months, but the outbreak was not identified until widespread testing occurred. It says shelters have also been encouraging face coverings for all staff and guests.

“It is now critically important that shelters continue to strictly follow CDC guidelines to protect staff and guests,” the city’s statement said.

Brother Francis is operated by Catholic Social Services and usually serves as the city’s largest homeless shelter.

But the shelter has been operating at less than half capacity to allow for social distancing, housing up to 114 people. The city is housing more at Sullivan Arena.

Brother Francis first confirmed on Tuesday that 20 of its clients had tested positive for COVID-19.

The first case was reported by a person who had left the shelter last week, David Rittenberg, the director of Brother Francis, said on Tuesday. Everyone at the shelter was then tested, and 18 more infections were identified. All were asymptomatic. Another person who had been at the shelter also reported a positive test.

Rittenberg declined to comment on the new cases on Thursday. 

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He said Thursday that since the first case was confirmed Brother Francis has been testing guests three times per week.