A woman who came from Massachusetts to Maine last week and stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland has tested positive for the coronavirus and may have exposed many others at the crowded facility, a city official said Tuesday.

The news, announced Tuesday morning by Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, will drastically impact Maine’s only municipally run shelter, which has been operating at full capacity with 154 guests each night. As a result, it hasn’t been able to implement social distancing recommendations for people to sleep 6 feet apart.

The news comes two weeks after advocates had warned of the need for more shelter space to reduce risk among the homeless, and as several state and local agencies are working to open a “wellness” shelter by the end of this week at Sullivan Gym on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine. That 50-bed shelter will serve men and women who aren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and is intended to reduce numbers at the Oxford Street Shelter.

The Massachusetts woman arrived at Oxford Street Shelter on Wednesday and was quarantined on Saturday at the city’s family shelter, which has been converted to a shelter for people who have tested positive for the virus or are awaiting test results, said Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman.

“She has been in an isolated space since she has been awaiting test results,” Grondin said. “We are now working with the Maine CDC to identify who may have been exposed.”

Grondin said she had no additional information about the woman.

Grondin acknowledged that many people could have been exposed because cots or mats are spaced about 2 feet apart in the separate sleeping areas for men and women, guests share common areas and people mill around outside the shelter throughout the day.

At his daily news conference Tuesday, Shah said the Maine CDC has been working with Portland to prepare for a positive test result among Oxford Street Shelter guests and that those plans now will be implemented.

Asked for details of the CDC’s response, a spokesman said state epidemiologists began tracing people who had contact with the woman after she tested positive. “Individuals determined to be close contacts have been identified and appropriate steps are being taken,” CDC spokesman Robert Long said in a written statement.

By Tuesday night, 27 female shelter guests had been identified as having had close contact with the woman who tested positive and had been quarantined at the family shelter, Grondin said.

Grondin didn’t respond Tuesday night to questions about other steps that might be taken, such as reducing the shelter’s sleeping capacity to allow recommended social distancing or conducting health screenings to identify guests who might have symptoms, such as fever, cough or respiratory congestion. She said more information about the city’s plans for the Oxford Street Shelter would be released Wednesday.

Grondin said Portland officials have been forced to reevaluate city spaces previously considered off limits as overflow shelter space during this pandemic, such as the Portland Expo, which served as a shelter for an unexpected influx of migrants seeking asylum last summer.

“We’re probably going to have to staff up a new space,” Grondin said, because guests of the Oxford Street Shelter who are quarantined won’t be allowed at the Sullivan Gym.

Two weeks ago, Preble Street, a Portland nonprofit agency that serves homeless people, called on local, state and federal officials to better protect Maine’s homeless population during the coronavirus crisis, including an immediate need for three additional shelters in the city to allow more space and reduce risks of exposure.

At the time, Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, predicted that the virus would spread “like wildfire” through the homeless community once a shelter guest tested positive. The virus is known to transmit quickly in shared accommodations and is more dangerous for older people who have underlying health problems.

Local and state officials who are planning the wellness shelter at the Sullivan Gym said the facility is on track to open Friday, according to a written statement from the planning group.

It will be operated by Preble Street and is being developed by top administrators with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Maine State Housing Authority and the University of Maine System.

The situation at Oxford Street Shelter “underscores the urgent need to open a new shelter and spread people out,” the statement said. The temporary shelter at the Sullivan gym presents an “opportunity for harm reduction” and “an important step in curbing the spread of COVID-19 among” Portland’s homeless population.

The shelter will follow CDC guidelines and recommendations from experts on infectious diseases and homelessness, the statement said. MaineHousing and DHHS are providing supplies to ensure guests’ comfort and protect public health, including health screenings of both guests and staff prior to entering the building.

Swann said his agency takes safety seriously.

“Preble Street is committed to creating and staffing a professional preventive shelter in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis,” he said in the statement.

Preble Street, under a grant from MaineHousing, is diverting staff from other programs, hiring additional people and soliciting donations of supplies, Swann said.

Asked if former guests of the Oxford Street Shelter will be welcomed at the Sullivan Gym, organizers of the wellness shelter said they “will continue to assess the situation as things develop” and will adhere to CDC guidelines if any guests present with symptoms.

“With the screening procedures in place, we do not have any concerns regarding the health and safety of those who will be using the shelter,” said Nancy Griffin, USM’s chief operating officer. “As a public institution, we believe it is our mission to assist these individuals during this pandemic.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.