Research project sees mass coronavirus testing in Hamilton homeless shelters

A research project within Hamilton’s homeless shelters is looking to catch any cases of the coronavirus before it can spread among those living in close quarters.

Led by Dr. Tim O’Shea, associate professor of infectious diseases at McMaster University, the eight-week study involves weekly surveillance testing of all residents and staff at the city’s emergency men’s and women’s shelters.

O’Shea said researchers are looking to determine whether or not mass testing is effective in preventing outbreaks in congregate settings, as well as what kind of testing is most acceptable to people who are voluntarily taking part in the testing every week.

“The traditional nasal pharyngeal swabs can be a little bit uncomfortable, so our concern is that people might stop coming back and volunteering for testing if we were using that,” said O’Shea. “So we’re testing a couple of different methods, including just swabs in the mouth that the patients do themselves, or swabs in the mouth and nose that the patients do themselves, and comparing that to the traditional approach as well.”

The focus on testing everybody in the shelter is similar to mass testing that has been ramped up in long-term care homes, which have seen the majority of COVID-19-related deaths in the province.

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O’Shea said people who live in close quarters are more vulnerable to the virus spreading rapidly, which is why testing everyone — even those without symptoms — is important.

“We do know that COVID can be spread from patients before they start to develop symptoms,” said O’Shea. “As well as some people that just won’t develop any symptoms at all, but can be carrying and shedding the virus, and spreading it to other people.

“And that can be quite dangerous in a congregate setting like we’ve seen in long-term care homes, but also in shelters, or in prisons, or other places where people are in close quarters together.”

That means the study also has a very real and practical purpose, which is to catch any positive cases early and prevent outbreaks in Hamilton’s shelters.

If the results of the project are effective, O’Shea said public health may be looking at conducting this kind of concentrated mass testing within certain high-risk populations going forward.

“To be able to kind of pick things up quickly, shut things down if we need to, isolate people that need to be isolated.”

The Shelter Health Network has also been actively testing any symptomatic residents within the system since mid-March, with the tests coming back within the same day through the lab at St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

O’Shea said that was “huge from a shelter perspective.”

“It let us really triage people who needed to be in isolation into isolation, people who didn’t need to be in isolation back into the general population,” he said. “And speaking to my colleagues across the country, I don’t think really any other municipality had access to testing that quickly and it really did make a big difference.”

So far, all of the tests conducted as part of the study have come back negative, although Hamilton has seen a couple of the city’s homeless residents test positive for the coronavirus through regular testing.

In those situations, the residents were able to be housed at the city’s isolation site at Bennetto Recreation Centre.

The city has also increased capacity for emergency shelters by opening up a 50-bed surge shelter at FirstOntario Centre and by housing others in the shelter system in hotel rooms.

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