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Outbreak forces halt to Iwilei shelter admissions

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As the number of positive COVID-19 cases reached record highs on Thursday, officials announced that the Institute for Human Services has seen 20 cases in its men’s shelter in Iwilei, requiring it to be converted into a temporary isolation and quarantine site.

It’s unclear when the cluster of positive cases became known. But state officials said in a statement Thursday that seven cases at IHS’ men’s shelter “were identified through the latest round of testing.”

Officials had been bracing since March for an outbreak at IHS, which operates two separate shelters in Iwilei — one for men and another for women and children.

The outbreak at the men’s shelter on Sumner Street indicated community spread had occurred.

The first positive case was identified at the men’s shelter on Aug. 5. The 112-space shelter is now closed to new admissions. Current clients are in isolation and quarantine for at least 14 days.

IHS followed recommendations by the state Health Department to close admissions and convert the men’s shelter into a temporary isolation and quarantine center, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.

Morishige said that IHS “quickly responded.”

“With widespread disease transmission throughout Honolulu, we knew this might be an eventuality and we planned and prepared for it,” IHS executive director Connie Mitchell said in a statement. “ … We will be working with our state and City and County partners to meet the needs of the individuals we have sheltered here as they responsibly quarantine to prevent any further spread of the virus. It’s a sacrifice that many in our community are being called upon to emulate.”

At the same time Thursday, a hui of over 70 individuals and organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii called on Honolulu police and other city officials to halt homeless sweeps during the pandemic, citing earlier guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the start of the outbreak.

“It is cruel, legally questionable (at best), and a threat to public health and safety,” the groups said in a statement Thursday. “Public health experts locally and nationally say this is bad health policy, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself has weighed in with the following guidance: ‘Considerations for encampments — If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.’”

The groups said there is even less space in homeless shelters because of social distancing guidelines, leaving homeless people with fewer options.

“And if an unsheltered person is arrested for being in a park or on a beach on Oahu, they’ll be sent to the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which is now seeing its own growing outbreak of the virus,” according to the groups’ statement. “… Please join us in a call to end this practice, at least until this pandemic is behind us.”

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