VANCOUVER -- The City of Vancouver is opening two emergency response centres inside community centres in order to create more space for homeless residents to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The centres will be located downtown at the Roundhouse and Coal Harbour Community centres and will be open later this​ week. They will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will be referral-only. The facility in Coal Harbour is already operational, and Roundhouse is expected to be open within the next few days.

"We understand this is an unprecedented use of our community centres, but deploying them in this way is critical to try to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the demand on our health care system," said city manager Sadhu Johnston in a statement.​

Mayor Kennedy Stewart also said in order to properly tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of contaminated drugs must also be addressed.

"The Downtown Eastside is struggling with two health emergencies—COVID-19 and a poisoned illicit drug supply," said Stewart.

He expressed gratitude to the federal government for enabling safe supply to move ahead, and said the province is working to determine how it will be rolled out, with further details to come. Stewart said the city will be ready to deploy a community action team focused on helping the 20 to 30 per cent of drug users who are not connected to the healthcare system.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that the city's "top priority" must be protecting its most vulnerable citizens. He also addressed the residents of the Downtown Eastside directly and said if anyone got sick, there would be an "army of people working to keep you safe."

For those on the Downtown Eastside who do get sick with COVID-19, Stewart said "several hundred" hotel rooms have been secured to house patients.

Stewart also said the city has boosted support for tenants and increased cleaning at publicly-managed single-room occupancy hotels (SROs).

"We are working with Vancouver Coastal Health on making sure privately-funded SROs increase hygiene access and help residents able to self-isolate in their rooms," he said.

The mayor also said the city is working with BC Housing to increase access to personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

With the Downtown Eastside Market closed to reduce community spread of the virus, Stewart said they are now trying to redeploy vendors to "help the community with physical distancing measures."

The city will continue to distribute food to DTES residents through a takeout window at the Carnegie Community Centre and is working with VCH to develop guidelines to help ensure non-profits are able to "ramp up" food distribution.

Eleven hand washing stations have been set up in the DTES, plus one in Oppenheimer Park, with more on the way, said the mayor.

"Now that we know the virus is being transmitted in our communities, we are now turning as public health officials to consider how we can protect populations that are most vulnerable to severe disease," said Vancouver's medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly. She said the city's homeless population may have underlying chronic health conditions that could make them more at risk for severe disease. She also said proactive surveillance for COVID-19 is now being done on the DTES.

There are have now been 725 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in B.C., which includes 359 cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.