By Jim Bell, CEO, Siloam Mission

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **

How will we keep the homeless safe from a highly contagious virus that’s spreading into almost every community in the world?

These days that’s the question ringing in my head from the second I get up to the minute I fall asleep.

The truth is I’m terrified of what might happen if COVID-19 takes hold in places like Siloam Mission and other shelters in our city.

We have a duty of care to look after men and women who are at their most vulnerable. And before I tell you how we are planning on keeping them safe, I want to paint you a picture of what happens if we don’t.

By the time someone ends up at our doorstep, every other support system has failed them. They have exhausted the help of family, friends, various social services and — in some cases — even the healthcare system.

They are usually struggling to cope with deep-rooted trauma, addictions or mental health issues. And frankly, their physical health is often suffering too.

COVID-19 is a terrifying health emergency for most people. But it’s even scarier for people with underlying health conditions — which is most of the men and women who use our services.

Part of what keeps me up at night is that the virus is almost three times as contagious as the seasonal flu. It has almost ten times the hospitalization rate. The case fatality rate is more than 3%, while for the seasonal flu it’s about 0.1%.

And because the incubation time can be up to 14 days, it’s hard to stop the spread because it’s not evident you are dealing with an outbreak until it has already jumped from person to person.

The way most shelters across North America are set up is fairly simple. They have a large drop-in centre that serves as a dining room and living room. And they have a large open-concept overnight shelter space filled with beds a few feet apart from each other.

During colder months, both spaces are packed with people finding shelter from the elements.

At Siloam Mission, we have controlled access to our building by providing indoor services only to those 110 men and women who are also staying in our emergency shelter. These individuals are relying on us for meals in our dining room, where we have implemented physical distancing to keep everyone safe. For those not staying in our shelter, we are serving lunch and supper in bags at the door to those who need us.

So while we are doing our best to protect our community, you can imagine if even one person gets infected with the virus, the community transmission would be fast and swift. And, by the time someone might show symptoms, it could be too late.

Within a few weeks, the entire shelter — including staff and community alike — would be a giant cluster of people infected with COVID-19. And my guess is that many people who use our services would show severe symptoms due to the health challenges they already face.

We can’t let that happen.

So here’s what we’re doing to protect the city’s most vulnerable. First of all, the shelters in the city are now coordinating a joint response should a case of COVID-19 be confirmed among our population.

We are working with partners like Main Street Project and the Salvation Army to establish overflow emergency shelter spaces big enough to accommodate social-distancing measures.

We’re working to establish individual rooms for quarantines. And we’re coordinating with the province to establish testing near shelters.

At Siloam Mission, we made the tough decision to ask all of our volunteers to stay home. We rely on more than 8,000 of them every year, but we simply can’t screen everyone well enough to make sure our community members are protected.

This is putting a considerable strain on our resources already, but we’re doing it for the safety of every person we serve who is already vulnerable.

The only volunteers who are still coming into our building are medical volunteers — amazingly dedicated nurses, doctors and nurse practitioners who are helping us implement safety measures and educate our community.

I don’t know what will happen. There is no global pandemic playbook.

But I do know we will rely on the caring and generosity of Manitobans more than we ever have before. And I also know they will rise to the challenge — like they always have.

Caring also needs to be contagious. That’s the only way we’ll stand a chance of keeping our most vulnerable safe.