Updated at 1:10 p.m.: Updated with confirmation that Dallas Life homeless shelter downtown is the shelter referred to by Dr. Philip Huang.
Updated at 6:05 p.m.: Updated with a statement from the city.
Updated at 9:15 p.m.: Updated with the most recent number of people who tested positive.
Dallas’ homeless population saw its first publicly known cases of the coronavirus after 38 people at a downtown shelter tested positive for the highly contagious disease.
The outbreak occurred at the Dallas Life homeless shelter at 1100 Cadiz St., the Rev. Bob Sweeney, the nonprofit’s executive director, confirmed Friday. All 38 who tested positive were homeless residents.
Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County’s health and human services director, told county commissioners Friday that in addition to those who had tested positive, up to 200 staffers and shelter residents have been exposed. Sweeney said about 160 who had been sheltering there were taken on DART buses to an undisclosed hotel and have now been isolated, he said.
“Many of the persons have had asymptomatic cases,” Huang said. “This is a situation where they weren’t all symptomatic when we did the testing.”
The extent of the exposure meant that no further testing was needed and that officials would assume that most at the shelter had come in contact with the virus, Huang said. More testing would be done if some developed symptoms, he said.
The outbreak at the shelter began with three guests who had fevers and tested positive for the coronavirus, with the first person testing positive eight days ago, Sweeney said.
Widespread testing at the shelter began three days ago, he said.
Seventeen of the guests initially tested Wednesday at Dallas Life were positive, according to an email from Kevin Oden, interim director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions. The correspondence was sent to members of the Citizen Homelessness Commission. An update as of 8:30 p.m. Friday stated that 47 total tested negative, Sweeney said.
When asked why it took a week to begin testing after someone tested positive for the virus, Sweeney said the shelter followed the county’s direction.
“If someone tested positive, it didn’t mean we naturally assumed everyone in the building was going to test positive,” Sweeney said. He added that the county made the decision to test everyone in the building, and “we just tested when they told us to.”
City spokeswoman Roxana Rubio said Friday that 164 guests have been moved to hotel rooms for 21 days. Seven staff members went home, she said.
The city had approved over $1.6 million for hotel rooms at Residence Inn Market Center, Courtyard by Marriott and Vishwanath Hotels to shelter first responders and the homeless until September.
Two of the first three who tested positive left the shelter to join their families, and one had been isolated in a hotel room provided by the city, Sweeney said.
A DART bus driver was dressed in protective gear as he transported people away from Dallas Life homeless shelter on Friday, April 17, 2020. The facility reported 17 people who tested positive for the coronavirus, and 171 people who have been exposed.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus spread in Dallas because of their exposure to communal areas, according to Blake Fetterman, executive director of the Salvation Army’s Carr P. Collins Social Service Center. They’re also more likely to have underlying health conditions.
“Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness have compromised health that makes them more susceptible,” Fetterman said in an earlier interview. And, she added, they spend much more time in public spaces. “Any time you’re dealing with large communal centers, I think there’s a higher risk for infectious diseases to spread.”
Dallas Life shelter has been distancing beds, Sweeney said, but believes its facility is more susceptible to infectious diseases because residents interact socially in daytime classes. About 20 residents also had jobs and were provided with work slips to leave the shelter, he said.
“We were very careful with social distancing, but they were still all together,” Sweeney said.
Several other homeless shelters also began spreading beds farther apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A month ago, shelters at The Bridge and Austin Street Center removed beds to space residents 6 feet apart and took other precautions to avoid an outbreak among vulnerable residents in Dallas. The Bridge reduced its bed capacity by nearly half for its nighttime shelter, while Austin Street Center removed about 38% of its total.
Nick Colletti, chief development officer at The Bridge, said the shelter remained “an infection-free zone” for guests and staffers as of Friday. Daniel Roby, Austin Street Center’s CEO, also said its facility has remained free of positive cases.
“We’ve been practicing the recommendations that CDC has been putting out from the beginning,” Roby said. “We don’t have any confirmed cases to date.”
City officials have tried to fill the gap. Officials said about 100 hotel rooms as of last week were used to house homeless people. For a month, the city has also been operating an emergency shelter for the homeless at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where they regularly host 300 guests a night.
Dallas’ point-in-time count this year revealed that 4,471 homeless people are living in shelters and on the streets, a 1.5% decrease from last year’s count. But the unsheltered homeless count increased 11% compared to last year — to 1,619 from 1,452. The number of chronically homeless rose 7%, to 503 from 470.