Library closes and isolation center opens as COVID-19 cases grow among Juneau’s homeless population

People who stay overnight at the emergency shelter inside the Juneau Arts and Culture Center use the same cot and blankets on consecutive nights. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

A cluster of positive COVID-19 cases among Juneau’s homeless population has risen to 31 people. 

In response, the city is closing the downtown public library to indoor service and will reopen Centennial Hall as an isolation facility. 

City Manager Rorie Watt spoke about the situation during a community update today.

“I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of this cluster, outbreak, whatever we want to call it. It is very serious,” he said. “But in some ways, we have the potential to manage the situation more than if we had a similar number of cases randomly throughout the community.”

The city did not open Centennial Hall over the weekend. Watt said that’s because they couldn’t find people to staff it. 

“It’s not easy to get people who want to work in that environment. I mean honestly, the job description is: come supervise COVID-positive people, potentially with behavioral challenges, in a congregate setting,” Watt said.

To help with that, Capital City Fire/Rescue’s sleep-off program will be relocated from the Mendenhall Valley to Centennial Hall so that medical professionals will be on-site. 

That means people picked up for being intoxicated in public will be sleeping in the same building as those in isolation and quarantine. 

The downtown library is one of the main places people experiencing homelessness in Juneau can go during the day. It will continue to offer curbside service for library patrons, much like it did earlier in the pandemic. 

The Glory Hall homeless shelter remains open for a limited number of people overnight. It’s closed during the day, but meals are still available for pick-up downstairs. 

The city’s emergency shelter run by St. Vincent’s at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center remains open as well. 

St. Vincent’s Director Dave Ringle said Tuesday it’s not completely clear how the virus is spreading among the unsheltered population. 

“We can observe the behaviors within our shelter for the 12 hours our shelters are open, but we have no control over what happens in the other 12 hours or what’s happening outside our shelter,” Ringle said. “So we’re testing everyone, we’re monitoring the situation, trying our best to discourage unhealthy activities and sharing of drinks and food and other substances.”

The city tested 130 people at several shelters and housing facilities last Friday. Those results are still being processed, but nine have come back positive from that batch of tests, adding to the positive cases reported last week.

This post has been updated. 

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