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Refugee shelter in Toronto reports outbreak of COVID-19


A refugee shelter in downtown Toronto is reporting four cases of COVID-19, a problem the organization managing the facility said extends to other shelters in the city.

Homes First Society said it was first notified about the cases at Willowdale Welcome Centre on Thursday and the organization is waiting to hear back on multiple other tests. The facility currently houses more than 200 people.

"People are very frightened, these are things that don't make us comfortable," said Patricia Mueller, CEO of Homes First Society, which operates other shelters in Toronto for people who are homeless or struggling with addiction.

"This is all new ground for our staff in terms of trying to educate about physical distancing."

Mueller said staff have erected plexiglass shields at counters and have shuffled residents to different shelters to space out occupants, but it can be difficult to get people to take physical distancing rules seriously.

She added that other shelters her organization manages have also seen COVID-19 cases.

In some of the organization's shelters for people with addictions, she said staff can't leave out hand sanitizer because residents will consume it.

Mueller said staff and residents have all been given personal protective equipment like surgical masks, but she said the organization will likely run out of supplies in two or three weeks.

"We are, in the shelter sector, forgotten about when it comes to personal protective equipment," said Mueller.

"We have had some donations and for that I'm eternally grateful, but we haven't become the cause celebre of any movie star or any famous hockey player yet."

Still, Mueller said she is not aware of any staff having walked out or refused work out of fear of the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, dozens of staff walked out of a group home for disabled adults in Markham, Ont., after multiple staff and residents tested positive for the coronavirus. Management said they had to pitch in to help run the home after all but four workers left their posts out of fear of COVID-19.

And in the Montreal area, 31 residents at a long-term care home have died in less than a month after workers walked off the job there.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said workers and residents at shelters and care homes will be prioritized for COVID-19 screening as the province plans to increase testing to 8,000 per day by the coming week.

Ford has said the province plans to test 16,000 people per day by early May.

The province reported another 401 cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases to above 7,000.

Health officials also reported 21 more deaths for a new total of 274.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the municipal government said officers issued 48 tickets to people who weren't following physical distancing guidelines on Sunday

The city announced on Saturday that officers would start immediately issuing tickets instead of trying to educate residents first.

Toronto has been one of the hardest hit cities with over 2,225 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 and 85 people in intensive care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2020

Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press

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