Another Colorado Springs homeless shelter has reported COVID-19 cases — which officials believe could be linked to the recent large outbreak at the county jail — and infections and deaths continue to mount at health care facilities for the sick and elderly, according to the latest public health outbreak data.
From Nov. 24 through Dec. 7, 335 additional coronavirus cases and seven more deaths were recorded at residential assisted living centers and skilled nursing homes in El Paso County, statistics show. From Nov. 1 through Nov. 23, 211 infections and nine deaths occurred at such centers.
Local hospitals also have been hit by the virus.
Four departments at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services have active outbreaks, statistics show. Three patients in the oncology department died from the virus and nine employees were infected. Eight neonatal intensive care unit employees, five in case management and 14 in the hospice and palliative care unit at Penrose Hospital also have been tallied.
At UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, six employees in the cardiac lab — but no patients — tested positive.
It’s unknown how the staff became infected, although they all work in the same department, said UCHealth Memorial spokeswoman Cary Vogrin. No other area of the hospital was affected, she said, and all employees have since returned to work.
The timing of outbreaks at two Colorado Springs homeless shelters indicates a possible link between infected inmates at the El Paso County jail and other correctional facilities being released in recent weeks and the spread at homeless shelters, officials believe.
In late October, the county jail experienced the largest outbreak among Colorado prisoners, with more than 1,000 out of 1,200 inmates and 115 staff testing positive for the virus. The outbreak at the jail has since subsided, with only 14 inmates and eight staff infected, according to the Sheriff's Office most recent count.
While there’s no concrete proof, the correlation seems logical, said Capt. Doug Hanson, who heads Salvation Army church operations in El Paso County, including the 232-bed R.J. Montgomery Center homeless shelter for men, women and families.
“We think it’s all connected,” he said. “It’s a reasonable assumption; we had nothing for nine months, and all of a sudden we have five cases.”
Over a five-day period, seven people — or half of the R.J. Montgomery shelter’s staff — were either infected or in quarantine for exposure to the virus, Hanson said.
Because the cases trickled in, they weren’t listed until this week as an outbreak, which public health officials define as two or more positive COVID cases from the same location in a 14-day period.
Also this week, Springs Rescue Mission, which provides various housing and other services for the homeless, announced an outbreak of 15 positive COVID cases encompassing nine staff and six residents in its residential men’s addiction recovery program.
Springs Rescue Mission spokesman Travis Williams said as soon as the outbreak at the county jail was announced, homeless people who were being released from local correctional facilities were sent to an isolation center specifically for the homeless, which since April has been set up at the City Auditorium.
While the majority of the 200 people that have used the isolation shelter did not test positive for the coronavirus despite having symptoms, more confirmed positive cases are appearing, Williams said.
“That could be one of the reasons we’re seeing more cases at the isolation center,” he said. “There’s a higher likelihood if they came from one of the correctional facilities, they were infected there.”
Hanson said the Salvation Army’s outbreak is thought to have originated outside of the shelter and was brought in, possibly by homeless people who had COVID but didn’t have any symptoms.
In previous months, wearing masks was requested of homeless clients, but now it’s mandatory, Hanson said. Anyone who doesn’t comply can be kicked out, which he said hasn’t happened yet.
“But we have had some heated conversations, with staff using de-escalation skills,” he said.
The Salvation Army’s shelter this week randomly tested 40 clients using rapid-response kits that El Paso County Public Health administered, and none came back positive, Hanson said. Weekly testing of a sampling of clients will continue, he said.
Springs Rescue Mission is working with public health to set up a testing site for the homeless population near its campus, Williams said.
Many people are surprised that there have been no outbreaks among the homeless population until now, he added.
Shelter leaders attribute that to strict sanitization practices and careful adherence to public health standards related to the virus.
Agencies that serve the homeless formed a COVID task force in March, which has continued to meet weekly with public health and hospital staff to work on curbing the spread, Hanson said.
Every two hours, the front doorway area is wiped down at the Salvation Army shelter, for example, and people at the Springs Rescue Mission sleep staggered, feet to head.
Even so, “When you serve a large population, you try your best to mitigate, but sometimes your best efforts aren’t enough,” Hanson said.