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Immediate action needed on Downtown Eastside to 'halt disastrous and fatal' COVID-19 outbreak: UBCIC

Last Updated Sep 12, 2020 at 12:34 am PDT

FILE - Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at a lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs is asking for immediate action to halt an outbreak on the Downtown Eastside

The UBCIC says cases have been recorded 'among residents and front line staff, with multiple cases in some locations'

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Concerns that COVID-19 cases on the Downtown Eastside are being underreported amid a spike in new infections province-wide have prompted the Union of BC Indian Chiefs to call for immediate action to prevent a “disastrous and fatal outbreak.”

Vancouver Coastal Health has issued one public exposure warning for the area after a case was recorded at the West Pub near Carrall and East Hastings Streets.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says this doesn’t mean COVID-19 isn’t spreading through the area.

“We have a strong network with community organizations that work in the Downtown Eastside, and we know through the grapevine, so to speak that there are cases that very recently have been recorded,” he says.

“We’re deeply concerned that unless immediate measures are taken — substantive measures — that we could suffer a very serious outbreak in the Downtown Eastside.”

There is no available breakdown of cases by neighbourhood, but Phillip says he “absolutely” thinks the seriousness of the situation isn’t being reflected in public exposure warnings.

“As we know, in order to deal with a problem you first have to acknowledge it and we’re urging the authorities to do that.”

The UBCIC says in a statement that cases have been recorded “among residents and front line staff, with multiple cases in some locations.”

They are asking for “a commitment to publicly report any cases in the DTES so that residents of the densely populated neighbourhood can take extra precautions for their health and safety.”

Phillip says the threat of a second wave underscores the urgency for action.

The demands being made by the organization include increased testing capacity, safe and secure spaces for people to self-isolate, a safe drug supply, access to housing, and supplies of PPE.

“What we have said consistently is — we don’t want to hear eloquent statements or good intentions from the government. We want to see action, we want to see financial investment, we want to see purchases of real estate and those types of concrete measures,” Phillip says.

“Housing is an incredibly important issue, there’s certainly been enough studies and talk. We need to act. There’s been a lot of talk but we need immediate action, immediate action is absolutely essential. COVID-19 moves very, very quickly.”

Meanwhile, Vancouver City Council held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon to consider a motion by the mayor urging “Emergency COVID-19 Relief for Unsheltered Vancouver Residents.”

The motion addresses the encampment in Strathcona Park, asking staff to investigate the feasibility of three different options for those who are sheltering in tents there. If the motion passes staff will advise council on the best of three options: the city purchasing housing units, creating a sanctioned tent city, or temporarily converting buildings into emergency housing or shelter space.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s motion includes reference to the issues being raised by the UBCIC.

“The recent spike in COVID-19 cases, a toxic illicit drug supply escalating overdoses, and the coming colder weather require urgent action to provide unsheltered residents safer short- and long-term shelter options and improved access to sanitation, health, and social service,” it reads.

Council will reconvene Monday afternoon to vote on the motion. If passed, staff will be asked to bring a recommendation back to council on Oct. 2 on how to proceed.

With files from Toby Kerr