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Coronavirus cases rising among King County's homeless population, report says

Thirty people tested positive for coronavirus at the former Red Lion Hotel in Renton that King County purchased to shelter people without homes during the pandemic.

RENTON, Wash. — Public Health-Seattle King County officials say 30 positive cases of the coronavirus have been found among the individuals living at the former Red Lion Hotel in Renton this month.

“We're hoping we actually are on the other side of this,” said Noah Fay, director of housing with the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC). The organization is overseeing the former Red Lion for King County, which bought the hotel as a shelter for people without housing during the pandemic.

“Nearly every single case has been asymptomatic. And so far everybody has returned to full health,” Fay said.

DESC has 19 locations throughout the region and focuses on helping those experiencing homelessness with getting housing or healthcare assistance.

Fay says the people being housed at the former Red Lion are all tested regularly for COVID-19 through the Seattle Flu Study.

“Six days a week of regular proactive surveillance testing, which is really remarkable, which is not something that we have access to in any of our other locations,” he said.

Cases of the virus are rising among the area's homeless population lately. A state Department of Health report showed 192 positive cases have been reported among those experiencing homelessness since the pandemic began.

But in the last week (Dec. 20-26) there were 108 reports of positive cases, an uptick Fay calls alarming.

“We are just seeing COVID is really pretty much in all corners of our community right now,” he said.

He said he hopes the recent cases at the former Red Lion don’t undermine what they’ve learned during the pandemic — that hotels are a solution to offering shelter.

“It's an absolute gamechanger for people's ability to recover and live a healthier life,” he said.

Fay says the crowded spaces of a typical shelter are stressful and can be a difficult place to get settled. He says he’s seen a noticeable improvement in those staying at the hotel.

“We have seen people make strides in the last eight months in a way that frankly... I just haven't seen before in a shelter setting. And to lose sight of that after the pandemic would just be a total mess on our part,” he said.

Fay says he was disappointed by Renton City Council’s emergency ordinance passed last month that requires the residents to leave the former Red Lion by January 2022.

“I don't think that's a step in the right direction for what needs to be a regional response to homelessness, which is what our county and cities are aiming towards,” he said.

Fay added the voice not being heard in the debate is the ones staying in the hotel.

“The people that are most anxious about that city council vote, are the people staying at the shelter themselves. We don't have a good answer for where they're going to go in June. And that's a really difficult thing to have to tell somebody when they ask, 'Where do I go in June?' And we have to say, we don't know,” he said.

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