A key component of Spokane County’s fight against COVID-19 is tucked inside a secluded section of a Spokane Valley hotel, just off Interstate 90.
It comes with a bed and three square meals a day, but the guests don’t pay a dime.
The Spokane Regional Health District is using an entire floor at the My Place Hotel in Spokane Valley to house people diagnosed with COVID-19 – or displaying symptoms related to the disease – but are unable to safely isolate at home.
The isolation facility was an essential piece of the county’s application to move into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which Secretary of Health John Wiesman approved in May.
Although only a small fraction of the people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Spokane County will require its services, health officials say the isolation facility will continue to be vital throughout the pandemic – especially when Spokane County has the opportunity to further relax restrictions.
“We know that the majority of people we need to support in an isolation facility are in a situation where it’s not remotely possible for them to be away from other people while they’re the most infectious,” said Susan Sjoberg, program manager for disease prevention and response at the Spokane Regional Health District.
The health district launched the hotel isolation facility on June 1 and has hosted 60 guests, for a total of 176 nights, as of Friday.
As the pandemic took hold in March, local leaders swiftly opened an isolation facility at a spacious, open building at the Spokane County Fairgrounds and Expo Center. Staffed by the Guardians Foundation alongside health care providers from CHAS, the fairgrounds space resembled an emergency shelter quickly organized in the wake of a natural disaster.
The fairgrounds facility, now closed, was erected as public health officials feared that up to 100 people could require its services almost immediately.
But that demand never materialized.
In searching for a right-sized replacement facility, officials focused on locating a hotel or dormitory that could offer its guests privacy and better service, while simultaneously being more financially efficient for the health district and Spokane County.
“(The fairgrounds facility) is not the first choice for being able to support people in isolation,” Sjoberg said. “All of us prefer an opportunity to have more privacy and feel more individualized in terms of our care.”
The My Place Hotel in Spokane Valley was one of several local businesses and institutions to step forward and was chosen as the primary isolation site. It offered a significantly more affordable option for the health district compared to other locations, according to documents submitted to the Department of Health as part of the county’s Phase 2 reopening application in May.
“Without My Place hotel really stepping up to the plate … we wouldn’t have gotten out of Phase 1,” Sjoberg said. “This was a critical part of the criteria for being able to reopen the community, and it continues to be.”
Sjoberg added that the hotel has “bent over backwards” to be accommodating and financially sustainable for the health district.
“An equally important part of the message is how thorough the setup is to protect both people we’re serving in the facility, as well as other guests in the hotel,” Sjoberg said.
A My Place manager could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The health district has an entire floor of the hotel blocked off, totaling 24 rooms. Hotel guests can not access the isolation floor and hotel staff are not tasked with servicing it. If the community’s need increases, the health district could take on a second floor.
Guests at the isolation facility must be referred to it in one of three ways.
The health district’s mobile triage team, which conducts nightly check-ins at Spokane’s homeless shelters and screens guests for COVID-19 symptoms, can refer a person directly to the facility while they await test results.
A person can also be referred to the isolation facility by the health district’s case investigators if they believe the person will be unable to safely isolate at home.
Hospitals can discharge a patient directly into the isolation facility. This is typically done when the patient does not require the level of care a hospital provides, but is still considered potentially contagious under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Regardless of the avenue by which people are referred to the isolation center, they must be in reasonably good health. Although health district staff are on site 14 hours a day, they are not providing substantive care.
“There’s no medical staff at an isolation facility. It’s really (for) somebody that is otherwise able to care for themselves, but they are still infectious,” Sjoberg said.
The isolation facility is reserved for people who are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, and there is reason to believe they have the disease.
Many are awaiting test results, but some have yet to be tested.
The health district has an agreement with Providence Health Care to rapidly test people who are admitted into the isolation facility. Test results are typically available the following day.
Those who test negative – which is the majority of guests – are provided free transportation home from the hotel.
The average stay for a person suspected of having COVID-19 who tests negative is about two nights, while those who have tested positive stay an average of six nights. About 22% of the isolation facility’s guests have tested positive for COVID-19.
People who have tested positive are isolated for 10 days following the day they were tested and 24 hours after they last experienced symptoms.
The isolation stay is free to all guests, who receive three meals a day catered by Longhorn Barbecue.
When a room is vacated by someone who tests negative, health district staff collect the linens and do a preliminary cleaning. Then, hotel staff come in and do their regular cleaning.
If the guest is COVID-positive, the health district has contracted with an outside janitorial service to conduct a deeper clean.
When it eventually folds the isolation center and leaves the hotel altogether, the health district will do a “terminal clean,” which will effectively erase any evidence of the facility’s existence.
About 2% of people who test positive for the coronavirus in Spokane County can’t isolate at home, Sjoberg said, which is in line with the predictions of state health officials.
The health district is collaborating with Catholic Charities to expand its isolation services to include a specific offering for people experiencing addiction or behavioral health challenges.
The entire operation is funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act dollars distributed by Spokane County Commissioners.
Thus far, commissioners have approved allocations of $6 million and $2 million to help cover the health district’s costs associated with responding to the pandemic.
Health officials prefer people to isolate at home if at all possible. One of the ways the health district helps people do that is through its care coordination team. As the health district conducts a case investigation, its care coordination team reaches out, identifies the needs and provides monitoring to make sure a person or family is safe in isolation at home.
The care team has served 110 households thus far.