Aug. 17, 2020

As COVID-19 threatened vulnerable Calgarians, this UCalgary network did something about it

Street CCRED delivers protective equipment, training and personnel for community support agencies and shelters in Calgary
Staff at Murray’s House, an independent housing facility that serves those who are chronically homeless and need health supports to live, showcase some of the PPE supplied by Street CCRED in June, 2020.
Staff at Murray’s House showcase some of the PPE supplied by Street CCRED in June, 2020. Street CCRED

As the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in cities across the country, organizations that work with some of society’s most vulnerable people began sounding the alarm.

“In the early months of this pandemic, we were being told to stay home as much as possible, but for the approximately 3,000 Calgarians without a home, this was not an option,” says Steven Richardson, co-ordinator for Street CCRED (Community Capacity in: Research, Education, and Development).

Beginning in mid-March, Street CCRED, which operates with support from the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and in partnership with many community service providers, began co-ordinating support for organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness or other social or economic vulnerabilities.

  • Photo above: Staff at Murray’s House, an independent housing facility that serves those who are chronically homeless and need health supports to live, showcase some of the PPE supplied by Street CCRED in June, 2020. Photo courtesy Street CCRED

“When COVID became a national crisis, there was a sudden and huge demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other resources throughout the province. The Alberta government was being pulled in a lot of directions at once, and some gaps emerged in the distribution of these resources,” says Richardson.

Those falling through the cracks, says Richardson, were some of Calgary’s most vulnerable. Street CCRED was in a good position to step in and try to fill some of these gaps, he says, because of its connections in health care and in the community.

Community connections draw valuable resources

The Street CCRED team began by connecting with Alberta Health Services and the Ministry of Community and Social Services (CSS) to advocate for additional PPE and health-care providers to work in shelters. This resulted in 20 health-care specialist positions being funded by CSS at the Calgary Drop-In Centre for the duration of the pandemic. Street CCRED also used their connections to tap health-care professionals to donate their time at city shelters — training shelter staff to screen clients for symptoms of the virus.

Adequate PPE for shelter staff is a major concern during an outbreak, says Dr. Bonnie Larson, MD, Street CCRED lead and clinical assistant professor at the CSM.

Due to the close-quarter living arrangements with a single space providing shelter for upward of 1,000 people, one COVID-positive case could impact a large number of medically complex individuals, says Larson, who is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Emergency shelters are operated by non-profit organizations with limited budgets and little, if any, internal expertise in health let alone public health or infectious disease management, and hence, there is a high risk of infection for people working in the shelters and their families.

A $10,000 donation from Calgary’s Rotary Club enabled Street CCRED to address these issues. The donation was used to purchase 4,100 masks, 150 disposable gowns, approximately 34 litres of hand sanitizer, and non-contact thermometers which were distributed to shelters across Calgary.

Etch Sourcing donated their services to obtain the masks and gowns, and the volunteer group Helping Alberta donated an additional 1,650 masks to Street CCRED and the organizations they were working with. 

The Children’s Cottage Society provides shelter for Calgary children and families in crisis. Director of programs Lisa Garrison says the masks Street CCRED supplied have played a critical role in protecting staff, and the children and families they serve.

An Alpha House shelter staff member wears a protective gown secured through Street CCRED on July 9, 2020.

Street CCRED

“We have been fortunate to not have had a single case of COVID-19 among staff or clients at either of our facilities and this is due to the support from community partners like Street CCRED who supported us with PPE and other items we needed to implement good safety protocols,” says Garrison.

Training and information in a time of crisis 

A pandemic imposes a steep learning curve, with high stakes and little room for error.

In the early weeks of this crisis, when shelter staff were dealing with a rapid influx of shifting information, the Street CCRED team partnered with the nurses at Westside Harm Reduction to co-ordinate and deliver the Caring for Vulnerable Populations in a Time of Crisis webinar series.  This training was funded by a grant provided by Calgary Foundation which was originally intended to educate frontline staff about the opioid epidemic in Calgary.  When COVID-19 began, Calgary Foundation allowed all grants to transition to support work being done relating to COVID-19. 

The series touched on topics requested by frontline staff such as drug overdose response during a pandemic and how to properly put on, and take off, PPE — providing essential information to the providers caring for some of Calgary’s most vulnerable, high-risk populations.

Summer has brought with it a gradual re-opening process, and the number of COVID-19 cases remains volatile in Alberta. Richardson says we need to stay vigilant, that the social inequities brought to light during the past few months must continue to be top of mind. 

“This pandemic has highlighted the disparities that exist in our world. People experiencing homelessness and living in extreme poverty don’t have access to the resources they need to survive this crisis, and that’s something that we, as a society, need to address.”

Bonnie Larson is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.