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Toronto says person with monkeypox at homeless shelter moved to isolation centre

TORONTO — A Toronto public health unit is investigating whether there could be more monkeypox infections in a homeless shelter after confirming that a person with the virus recently visited the facility.
Empty vials of vaccines against monkeypox lie on a table after being used to vaccinate people at a medical centre in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Francisco Seco

TORONTO — A Toronto public health unit is investigating whether there could be more monkeypox infections in a homeless shelter after confirming that a person with the virus recently visited the facility.

A statement from city officials Monday said the person has been transferred to Toronto's COVID-19 isolation and recovery site, which is also accommodating people who need to isolate because of monkeypox. It said municipal public health and housing officials are investigating "to determine if there are additional cases."

The city did not release the identity of the shelter, state how long the person had stayed there or confirm whether the shelter is experiencing a monkeypox outbreak as a result.

Diana Chan McNally, a community worker at a Toronto centre for people in need, said the spread of monkeypox in Toronto's shelter system, on top of ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks and other infectious diseases present in shelters, could be "a recipe for mass infection."

"This is a disease that can affect anybody," said Chan McNally of All Saints Drop-in. "If you have people in close proximity to each other, sharing space and tight quarters in congregate settings, I envision that we're going to see mass infection within the system."

The city said it continues to work with health experts to reduce the risk of monkeypox, COVID-19 and other transmissible diseases in high-risk settings like shelters.

To limit case numbers in shelters, the city said it continues to practise prevention and control measures such as enhanced cleaning protocols and use of personal protective equipment. The city also said it is working with specialists to minimize transmission through audits, training and outbreak-management planning with shelter providers.

Toronto's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration is working with Toronto Public Health to determine if a monkeypox vaccination program can be developed for the shelter system, according to the city's statement.

Now that monkeypox has been confirmed in the shelter system, Chan McNally said people experiencing homelessness should be among the groups prioritized for vaccination.

"We need to make sure that shelter hotels do not close and we need to ramp up recovery sites for COVID as well as monkeypox," said Chan McNally. "We don't currently have enough space, if we're looking at, potentially, mass infection."

Chan McNally also said the city should be more forthcoming with information about the confirmed case, for the sake of those entering the shelter system.

"I understand it hasn't been declared an outbreak yet … but I'm really livid that there's no information about this," she said. 

"It's not about me knowing, it's about people who are experiencing homelessness who have a right to know if their health could be potentially compromised if they're currently in that shelter, or if they're planning to enter into the system."

Public Health Ontario said there were 367 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the province as of Thursday, with nearly 78 per cent of reported cases in Toronto. It says almost all the people affected are male, with only two reported in female patients. The agency said most cases are among men who report intimate contact with men, but it said anyone can get monkeypox.

The virus generally doesn't spread easily and is transmitted through prolonged close contact via respiratory droplets, direct contact with skin lesions or bodily fluids, or through contaminated clothes or bedding.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2022.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press