Coronavirus Tears Through Homeless Shelter in DC

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At least five contract security officers have tested positive for the coronavirus at the New York Avenue homeless shelter in Northeast Washington, D.C.

One of those officers has died, while another described “severe” symptoms before recovering. 

The illnesses of contract and government employees of D.C. homeless shelters are not publicly announced in daily COVID-19 updates by Mayor Muriel Bowser, but they were confirmed through interviews and public records requests by the News4 I-Team.  

The virus has spread widely through the New York Avenue shelter, one of the largest homeless facilities in the region. In addition to the five contract security officers, at least two other contract staff have tested positive, the I-Team learned. The DC Department of Human Services said one of the other contract workers who tested positive is a janitor.

The agency told the I-Team approximately 85 residents tested positive as well.

James Jenkins Sr., a longtime security officer at the facility, fell ill with virus symptoms April 12, was hospitalized and died April 30, his family told the I-Team. His son said Jenkins was unaware the virus had arrived and spread at the shelter.

“He never would have kept going to work, knowing the people he was sharing spaces with on an everyday basis had contracted the virus," James Jenkins Jr. said.

Darius Collins, a contract security supervisor, fell ill in late March. He shared with the I-Team copies of his virus test results. Collins said his symptoms began days before he took sick leave from the shelter, and eventually grew severe.

“It felt like I’d swallowed glass,” he said. “By day three and day four, it was hard to move.”

Collins has recovered and returned to work at the shelter.

Advocates for the homeless said the homeless shelter employee cases discovered by the I-Team should be publicly released by the D.C. government as part of the District’s daily updates.

“There is a lot more we need to know,” said Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic.

“We should know where the hot spots are and what the city needs to do to prevent sickness,” Harding said.

Collins and representatives of his union said shelter contractors were not regularly informed about cases involving residents or colleagues.

Collins said he was not given paid leave during his quarantine and instead used vacation time. He said that policy might be a disincentive for others to call in sick if they develop symptoms.

The New York Avenue shelter is operated by Catholic Charities but overseen by the DC Department of Human Services. Catholic Charities referred requests for comment and I-Team questions to the D.C. government. In a statement, the DC Department of Human Services said, “DHS has issued guidance to providers on steps to take in cases where an employee tests positive or has been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19. These steps include: Identifying all individuals who had close contact with the confirmed positive case during the period that person was symptomatic and for two days prior, and notifying individuals that need to self-quarantine as a result of the exposure.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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