A resident of Seaton House has died after testing positive for COVID-19 as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to make its way through emergency shelters in Toronto.
The city confirmed the death at Seaton House, the city's largest shelter, in an email on the weekend. The shelter currently has 36 active cases of COVID-19. No details about the person who died were provided.
The death comes as 50 shelters are grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the city's dashboard of pandemic data, which was last updated on Friday morning. There are 401 active cases among unhoused people staying at shelters.
"The City and Toronto Public Health offer our condolences as we confirm the recent death of a resident staying at Seaton House in Toronto," the city said in the email.
"We can't provide further details regarding this individual in order to protect their personal health information under the provincial Personal Health Information Protection Act and out of respect for the privacy of the individual and their family."
According to city data updated recently, 132 shelter residents died in 2021. A total of 96 were men, 31 were women and five were transgender or non-binary. The average age was 47. The city data doesn't indicate cause of death.
Shelter system 'in free fall,' homeless advocate says
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the number of deaths is shocking.
"Things are quite obviously in free fall for Toronto's shelter system. It's long been terribly broken with chronic bed shortages and a failure from city leadership to acknowledge the extent of multiple, systemic crises," Johnson Hatlem said.
"With deaths having nearly tripled over unacceptable numbers in 2019, it is time for a radical new direction. Unfortunately, that will require major changes on both the political and bureaucratic sides at City Hall."
The number of deaths last year compares with 74 shelter resident deaths in 2020, 48 deaths in 2019, 26 deaths in 2018, 35 deaths in 2017, 33 deaths in 2016 and 45 deaths in 2015.
Since 2007, the city says 359 deaths of shelter residents have been reported, with an average of 27.6 deaths per year.
The city says Seaton House's annex, infirmary and long-term programs have reported the most deaths since 2007 — a total of 166 combined. That number accounts for 46.2 per cent of all shelter deaths over that time period.
Shelters to receive N95 masks for residents, city says
In its email, the city said it is committed to ensuring the safety of unhoused people in shelters and that commitment is "unwavering." Its efforts to make the shelter system safe include applying "stringent" infection prevention and control measures to all of its sites.
"From employing physical distancing, to rigorous IPAC measures, providing access to masks for clients and staff, and activating ongoing vaccination clinics, the City continues to take a comprehensive approach to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the shelter system and people experiencing homelessness," the city said.
City shelters will soon receive more than 310,000 N95 masks that will be handed out to residents. The city estimates that the supply will last at least the next 14 days.
Mayor John Tory said last Wednesday in remarks to reporters that front-line staff are working hard to ensure the stability of the shelter system.
Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said the key to ensuring the safety of unhoused people in shelters amid the Omicron wave of the pandemic is through vaccination.
"We need to continue, at all levels of government and as a city, to do absolutely everything to ensure that residents of shelters and staff have access to appropriate PPE, like N95 masks. We need to continue to open additional spaces, like the new community centres that were converted into emergency shelter facilities this weekend," Cressy said.
"And we need to continue to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Fundamentally, we know, with this Omicron variant, it is spreading everywhere in our city. And the best line of defence against negative health outcomes is vaccination."
Since April 2021, Team Toronto, which includes the city and its hospital and community partners, has hosted 1,300 vaccine clinics at the city's 101 shelters and respite centres, Cressy said. He noted that mobile clinics need to visit shelters repeatedly because the population is transient.
In January, the city said in a news release that it has scheduled 154 COVID-19 vaccination clinics at shelters to help ensure people experiencing homelessness get vaccinated.
Toronto has the largest shelter system in Canada, providing space for more than 7,200 people. The system includes 75 permanent shelters and 24-hour respite sites, and 26 temporary sites.