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The Willowdale Welcome Centre in Toronto is seen on Monday April 20, 2020. The centre, which provides shelter for refugees, has reported 74 cases of COVID-19,Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The number of known COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in a refugee shelter in North York after nearly all the clients were tested.

New figures released Monday showed 74 positive results at the Willowdale Welcome Centre – about one-third of the clients tested -- many of whom had been showing no symptoms.

Not all of the test results had been processed by the time of the briefing, late afternoon Monday, raising the prospect that the number of positives could rise further.

One week ago Monday there were 11 known cases of COVID-19 among clients of Willowdale, and a further 12 cases among staff. It is not known publicly how many staff cases there are currently.

Cathy Crowe, a nurse and long-time homeless advocate, called the new numbers a compelling argument for mass testing of all people served by the shelter system.

“You want to test everybody because the population is vulnerable,” she said, noting that the Willowdale facility is relatively spacious and that more densely packed shelters might be harder hit. “It’s going to be catastrophic. It’s going to be horrible.”

The city does not itself do testing, which falls under provincial authority.

“We are actively partnering with those who actually have purview over testing … and the shelters in order to facilitate more testing in these settings,” Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, told a briefing.

“The more testing that you’re able to do, the earlier that you’re able to identify infections and the sooner you’re able to implement appropriate controls.”

Mass testing began late last week at Willowdale, which is run by non-profit Homes First. Chief executive officer Patricia Mueller said that most clients, approximately 200 of them, had agreed to be tested.

Ms. Mueller said that no one connected with the shelter had died of COVID-19. She said that the facility was doing its best to reduce the risk of transmission, including by installing plastic shields between staff and clients, marking out safe distances on the floor, distributing surgical masks and doing more cleaning.

But she admitted that it can be hard to keep people apart. The chairs are not fixed down and some clients have to be told not to move them closer together.

“We’ve taken an education approach, we don’t have enforcement abilities,” Ms. Mueller said. “We don’t have a bylaw officer from Toronto standing by to say: ‘You’re not physically distancing’.”

The prospect of COVID-19 rampaging through the city’s shelter system has been raising alarm bells among advocates for weeks. The city has made some moves to reduce the risk, including by moving people from shelters into leased hotel rooms to reduce crowding. The city has also opened a temporary recovery site for homeless people.

Mary-Anne Bédard, Toronto’s general manager of shelter, housing and support also pointed Monday to the need for broader testing in the shelter system.

“It’s really important for us to know where the virus is to help us respond appropriately and quickly,” she said.

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