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Rising COVID-19 cases and a dysentery outbreak hit Downtown Eastside

Dysentery outbreak in DTES

The Downtown Eastside is dealing with two serious public health issues — a rise in COVID-19 cases and an outbreak of shigellosis, a highly contagious bacterial infection caused by unsanitary conditions.

A tenant who lives in the Hazelwood, a single-room occupancy hotel in the Vancouver neighbourhood, says she’s concerned about her neighbours after learning from staff in her building that at least 20 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. In SRO hotels, residents live in small rooms and usually share bathrooms and kitchens, so it’s difficult to self-isolate.

The Tyee is not identifying the tenant because of fears that she will face repercussions if others learn she lives in the building, including risks to her safety. She said she has been vaccinated, so she’s not that worried about her own health.

“I’m concerned more about my neighbours, because they are part of the vulnerable population,” she said. Residents include heavy drug users and people “with multiple disabilities and probably very low immune systems, and lots of co-existing health problems,” she said.

The tenant is also questioning why it appeared to take so long for notices warning residents of the outbreak to be posted in the building. Notices posted by Vancouver Coastal Health and reviewed by The Tyee say the exposure started Feb. 10 and is ongoing.

“That notice was posted on Feb. 24, so that’s two solid weeks where the tenants here had no clue they were in danger,” said the tenant.

The CEO of the company that operates the Hazelwood says there are currently 100 cases in two buildings operated by Atira Women’s Resource Society or Atira Property Management, a for-profit subsidiary of the society. Between Feb. 7 to 20, 142 new COVID-19 cases were recorded for the local health area that includes the Downtown Eastside.

Janice Abbott declined to speak to The Tyee about the COVID-19 clusters, referring The Tyee to Vancouver Coastal Health. Vancouver Coastal Health did not respond to The Tyee by publication time.

But in a Twitter post, Abbott said there are currently two clusters of cases in one building in the Downtown Eastside and another building outside the neighbourhood.

Abbott said an outbreak of another disease called shigellosis, caused by the shigella bacteria, is also a concern.

On Saturday, Vancouver Coastal Health warned that over 10 people from the Downtown Eastside had been hospitalized over the past few weeks after contracting shigellosis.

Shigella is a bacteria present in feces that can spread when people don’t have access to proper hand washing, safe food preparation or clean bathrooms. It causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps and some people can become severely ill and need treatment with antibiotics to recover, according to a notice Vancouver Coastal Health sent to Downtown Eastside housing and social service providers. It can also be transmitted through sexual contact.

Shigella infection is a major cause of dysentery.

Vancouver Coastal Health told housing providers to ensure that bathrooms and showers are kept clean, staff and tenants have access to frequent hand washing and hand sanitizer, and bathrooms are regularly stocked with soap and hand sanitizer.

The Hazelwood tenant The Tyee spoke to said that her building is kept fairly clean, but “it definitely could be better.”

The Tyee previously reported on complaints that the Gastown Hotel, a provincially-owned SRO also operated by Atira Property Management, is not being cleaned properly.

According to the Hazelwood tenant, Atira Property Management paid tenants earlier in the pandemic to regularly sanitize common touch points like elevator buttons and doorknobs. However, that program was recently cut, according to the tenant. Abbott declined to respond to questions about that program.

“I feel like leaving people in the dark really contributed to the rapid spread” of COVID-19, the tenant said. “And also, the lack of cleaning and sanitization.”

Over the past few weeks, Vancouver Coastal Health has been working to give COVID-19 vaccines to people who live in the Downtown Eastside and are homeless, live in shelters or reside in supportive housing.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, has said that people from the Downtown Eastside who get COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized.

According to Abbott, 115 residents of Atira-operated buildings, or five per cent of total residents, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Of Atira staff, 91 people have tested positive, or seven per cent of total staff. Three residents have died after contracting COVID-19.

The Tyee has asked Vancouver Coastal Health for more information about the shigellosis outbreak and will update this story when we receive the health authority’s response.



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