FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver began taking extra steps this week to protect volunteers and clients from the novel coronavirus.
It starts before people even enter the Harney Street building. Only a handful of clients are allowed inside at one time. Upon entering, they’re asked to apply hand sanitizer and put on plastic gloves before shopping the pantry. Paperwork has been minimized. Chairs set out for waiting clients are spaced 3 feet apart.
“Right now, we’re in a stage where we’re just trying to limit too many people congregating,” said Executive Director James Fitzgerald.
Volunteers are restocking food less often to reduce the amount of people out on the floor and possible contact. They’re asked to wipe down counters between clients who are picking up their bags of food. Stanchions are placed to increase distance between volunteers and clients, reducing the potential spread of droplets.
“The safety of our volunteer staff is No. 1,” said Wendy Bukoski, operations manager at FISH.
Local gathering spots, such as FISH, are beginning to take precautions as coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, spreads in Washington. There are now 27 confirmed cases and nine deaths in Washington related to the virus.
Clark County is awaiting coronavirus test results for eight residents. Seven specimens were sent on Monday to Washington Public Health Laboratories in Shoreline. An eighth test was sent Tuesday. Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said testing specimens doesn’t mean it’s likely there will be a confirmed case soon.
“There’s lots of other respiratory illnesses circulating here right now,” Melnick said.
Yet, Melnick did say COVID-19 will eventually appear in Clark County.
“We’re going to see this in our community,” Melnick said. “Right now, we’re still in the containment phase, but we’ll eventually be in the mitigation phase.”
For now, small sanitary safeguards are one of the best defenses available. Bukoski noted that many of FISH’s volunteers are older and more vulnerable to the spread of the virus, which makes their diligence even more necessary.
The pantry temporarily closed its clothing department and is not accepting clothing donations. The restrooms are also closed to the public, though accommodations are made as needed.
Dori Miller, volunteer coordinator, explained these precautions during a midday huddle with volunteers. Older volunteers who are sick or have compromised immune systems are asked to stay home.
“We have ways we’re going to manage on a skeleton staff,” Miller said. “We’d rather be safe than sorry.”
FISH board member Beth Lee, a retired family-practice doctor, modeled the precautions after food pantries in Seattle. She also called around to local pantries and got varied responses.
Lee, who has experience working abroad overseeing disaster response, said FISH adopted a tiered approach that will shift depending on the spread of the virus. If the virus becomes a more serious local threat, volunteers may have clients wait outside and hand them prepared bags of food.
“I understand the precaution, but I think it’s overboard,” said Karalee Grunwald, who visited the pantry Tuesday.
Grunwald, who is homeless, said many people living outside have built up strong immune systems.
Other organizations that work with vulnerable populations also began taking steps. Open House Ministries has a quarantine plan in case any of its shelter residents test positive for the virus. Staff are wiping down doorknobs and surfaces, which is business as usual for the communal living space.
“If a person is sick, they are quarantined to their room, which happens often — not just in coronavirus-concerned days. Any communal living situation allows viruses to spread quickly, so we always do our best to be diligent with cleaning and keep sick people separated,” spokeswoman Dina Hovde said in an email.
Amy Reynolds, deputy director of Share, said the downtown men’s shelter, Share House, decided to hire a cleaning service that may start in the next week to help maintain the building, which houses “an aging and more health vulnerable population.”
“Beyond that, people are cleaning, covering their mouths and staying home if they are not feeling well,” Reynolds said in an email.
Melnick also said he hopes people will stay home when sick, and practice proper hygiene. He also wants employers to help their employees work from home, so they don’t have to decide between a paycheck and spreading sickness.
“We can’t do our job without relying on the public,” he said.