Albuquerque shelter officials concerned about rise of COVID-19 cases

By Alika Medina / NM News Port

The number of COVID-19 cases in Albuquerque’s largest homeless shelter has risen to more than 114, which comes as the shelter was re-opening in advance of winter weather. 

Dennis Plummer, CEO of the nonprofit Heading Home, has confirmed between 114 and 130 homeless people at the Westside Emergency Shelter have been infected and are currently being housed in “hotel hospitals,” local hotels that are providing rooms in order to quarantine people experiencing homelessness who don’t require serious medical care.

The shelter previously reported 17 cases in early October, causing it to close temporarily.

The shelter announced it was reopening on Oct. 25, in preparation for the early winter storm that brought several days of snow to the region.

The outbreaks at the shelter coincide with the rise of COVID-19 rates around the state last month. In early November, New Mexico set records for the most new cases in a single day, exceeding 1000.

Still, Plummer said, the numbers could be worse. Earlier this year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that around 650 sheltered individuals experiencing homelessness in Bernalillo County would be infected with COVID-19.

“Out of the 650 that were estimated to be infected, those 114-130 make up about less than 30 percent — which for being in a pandemic since March isn’t bad,” Plummer said. 

Westside Emergency Shelter services include beds, clothes, a laundromat, computer pods, three meals a day and transportation. It has a weekly capacity of 400 people.  

“We clean and sanitize everything every couple of hours,” Plummer said. “We have also removed bunk beds and have the beds more separated.” 

Plummer said shelter guests are also screened upon arrival.

“Their temperatures are always taken once they come in,” Plummer said. “They also are questioned if they have any symptoms or not.” 

Those with symptoms or who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 are isolated and tested, Plummer said. 

Local hotels have agreed to accept payment vouchers to provide lodging used to isolate those who test positive.

In the city of Albuquerque, some 1,500 people are estimated to be homeless on any given night.

Other local shelters are doing their part to keep their doors open while keeping the coronavirus at bay. 

New Day is a well-known shelter, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that provides a bed, food and clothing to young people, a population which presents added challenges in preventing infections. 

“Yeah, it’s going to be difficult no doubt,” Steve Johnson, executive director of New Day, said.

Johnson said New Day’s Safe Home program is a method they have been using to ensure the safety of their residents as well as to keep track of those staying there who are not infected. 

“We have decided to create a second shelter. We have split our shelter into two parts,” Johnson said.

The first shelter serves as a quarantine spot, where people wait until they get tested and come out with a negative test. After they test negative they go into the main shelter with everyone else who tested negative.

“We haven’t had any infections in the house,” Johnson said.

Johnson said if a COVID-19 case is discovered, the shelter would turn to health officials and isolate the shelter staff. 

Johnson said the closure of schools has helped the shelter manage virus prevention among its guests, many of whom are school-aged teenagers. 

“One of the weird advantages is that sometimes it’s hard for young people to go to their home school because of transportation issues — but now they can all go to their home schools,” Johnson said, referring to school being online.

Alika Medina is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be reached at nmnewsport@gmail.com or on Twitter @Medina_Alika.