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Covid, flu outbreaks cause public health crisis at Guam's storm shelters

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

By Pacific Island Times News Staff

While struggling to restore water and power throughout the island, the government of Guam is now dealing with a public health crisis triggered by flu and Covid-19 outbreaks at the storm shelters.

The Department of Public Health and Social Services (DPHSS) confirmed four cases of Covid-19 at the Guam Pak Warehouse in Tamuning and one at the Astumbo Gym.

"Both Tier III shelters are operated by the American Red Cross," the department stated in a press release.

"To prevent further spread of the virus, all affected families remain in isolation at non-congregate facilities. Multiplex testing (which tests for COVID-19, Influenza and RSV), face masks, hand sanitizers, and hand washing stations are available to shelter residents," the department said.

Additionally, a single case of influenza was confirmed at the Guam Pak Warehouse earlier this week. Similarly, affected residents remain in isolation at a non-congregate facility.

DPHSS said it is working with the American Red Cross for further surveillance and monitoring of shelter residents.

The Covid and flu outbreaks were first reported by Dr. Vince Akimoto, a family doctor at American Medical Clinic, which was asked to assess the medical situation at the shelters.

"Public health has yet to provide any information about how to protect the other 400 occupants of the shelter," he added.

The American Red Cross earlier raised concerns about a flu outbreak at storm shelters, which prompted the government to find a new location to house residents displaced by typhoon Mawar.

Volunteers and medical providers reported poor ventilation and unfavorable conditions that create health hazards at the shelters.

“Our administration has expressed concerns and requested for the immediate relocation of the American Red Cross Tier III Shelter at the Guam Pak Warehouse in Tamuning," according to a statement from the office of the governor. "Upon notification of current shelter conditions, we began the process of securing a new location with remaining inventory."

Officials said the sites previously identified as shelters, including village gymnasiums, are either under construction or left severely damaged by typhoon Mawar.

"These challenges are compounded by limited commercial real estate available for such support," according to the governor's office.

On the heels of the flu outbreak, the Department of Public Health and Social Services is working alongside the American Red Cross to isolate affected families and minimize further exposure.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Lujan wrote to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero recommending that three schools -- Tamuning Elementary School, Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School, and Chief Brodie Elementary School-- or any available hotels be designated as additional shelters for the displaced residents.

"I believe by utilizing the aforementioned schools or any available hotels as additional shelters and hiring NGOs to manage the shelters so we can help alleviate the situation at the current shelters," Lujan said.

" Adding these facilities will improve living conditions, accelerate recovery, and further progress can take place. Our people deserve nothing less," he added.

Poor ventilation and overcrowding at the current shelters were compounded by sanitation problems, Lujan said.

"The garbage and waste were not removed and disposed of from the shelter facilities in a timely manner, further worsening the circumstances," Lujan said. "I and my staff personally went down to the shelter to see the situation for ourselves, and deemed it dire and disturbing. These conditions are unacceptable and we need to remedy the situation immediately."

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