Anchorage embarks on widespread testing effort as COVID-19 outbreak at shelter grows

A person takes the temperature of another person in front of a shelter.
Sarah Solski gets her temperature checked before re-entering Brother Francis Shelter on August 28, 2020 (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage officials say they are embarking on a widespread testing effort at the city’s homeless shelters and soup kitchens to try to contain a large COVID-19 outbreak tied to the Brother Francis Shelter.

The number of infections at the shelter grew to 68 by late Friday afternoon, said Audrey Gray, spokeswoman for the Anchorage Emergency Operations Center.

“The story is still moving and potentially may not be over,” said Anchorage Municipal Manager Bill Falsey. 

Brother Francis identified the first COVID-19 infection last week, and then rounds of testing revealed dozens of other cases. The shelter confirmed 20 infections on Tuesday, and that total tripled two days later. The city was still waiting on results from about 20 tests from Brother Francis Friday afternoon, Gray said.

It’s the first major outbreak at an Anchorage shelter.

“This is, of course, the scenario that worried us from the very beginning,” Falsey said. “We knew from other communities, and other countries around the world, that in these congregate settings, that once the virus gets in, it can move very quickly.’”

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The population at Brother Francis is particularly vulnerable. Since the pandemic started, the shelter has focused on serving older people and those with health or mobility issues. 

The outbreak has led to at least five hospitalizations, according to the city.

But many others who tested positive did not show any symptoms, said Tricia Teasley, a spokeswoman with Catholic Social Services, the agency that runs Brother Francis.

For months now, she said, everyone entering the shelter has had to go through health screenings. She said the shelter also increased cleanings and cut its capacity in half to encourage social distancing. It can now serve up to 114 people.

“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a case until this incident,” Teasley said. “This is a tricky virus.”

Teasley said Brother Francis will remain open, and Falsey said the city has no plans to ask it to close.

“If you were just to simply say, ‘Brother Francis is closed,’ you would have up to 100 people that you’d have to find some new location for,” Falsey said.

People who have tested positive are currently in isolation elsewhere, and those staying at the shelter are now going through testing three times a week, Teasley said. Teasley said about 55 people stayed at the shelter two nights ago.

“Even though this is a bit scary for everyone, services must continue in the best way possible,” she said. 

Falsey said boosting testing will hopefully help the city contain the outbreak. It’s still trying to figure out the best way to test people living in outdoor camps, he said.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the city also remains focused on moving people out of shelters and into hotels and apartments.

Meanwhile, the Sullivan Arena is still housing hundreds of people each night.

A man gives a thumbs up in front of the Sullivan Arena
Fred Hutchinson of Utqiagvik, on August 28, 2020, sheltering at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, says he feels safe and hopes to get back home soon. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The city set up the Sullivan Arena as a mass shelter in March, and it can house up to about 350 people. The shelter will continue regular testing, said manager Cathleen McLaughlin.

“We do them weekly, and we do them at different times so that we can touch different parts of our population,” she said. 

Results from the latest round of testing were still pending Friday morning, she said, but she’s hopeful that the virus hasn’t spread more deeply into the homeless population. 

She said the Sullivan Shelter isn’t admitting people who have stayed at Brother Francis recently. And, Brother Francis isn’t accepting new guests. 

Since July, six people staying at the Sullivan have tested positive for the virus, said Lisa Sauder, the director of Bean’s Cafe, which is operating the Sullivan shelter.

Those cases didn’t appear to trigger big outbreaks, Falsey said.

“We were gratified that when it showed up at the Sullivan’s door, it didn’t move very quickly,” he said.

At Brother Francis, he said, “our luck has somewhat run out.”