As local leaders allowed an isolation center at a Spokane Valley hotel to close last month, some people with COVID-19 were forced to shuffle between shelters while they waited out the disease.
Marlaina Meador tested positive during routine screening at the Hope House women’s shelter in late August, and she spent her first night of isolation in an office there.
She was then sent to the health district’s isolation facility at the My Place hotel for a few nights, only to be moved when the contract ended in the middle of her isolation period. She was shuttled to the city’s Cannon Street shelter, where COVID-positive guests were isolating in RV-like trailers outside the building.
She and two other women were sequestered in a setting like that until finally, Meador said, some of her friends put up enough money for her to stay at a Motel 6 until she was free to no longer isolate .
Meador was planning to get vaccinated, but she tested positive before she could be. She had been staying at Hope House for close to a month before her COVID-19 diagnosis.
Luckily, she remained asymptomatic, but she feels like she fell through the cracks when it came to isolation – especially if the goal was to keep her away from others. Isolation is seen by health officials as a critical way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in shelters where disease can spread quickly.
“In my opinion at the start of COVID, they should have over-prepared instead of under-prepared,” Meador said.
Local leaders did over-prepare at the start of the pandemic in 2020, when an isolation facility with a capacity for 100 people was stood up at the county fairgrounds. At the time, the facility was rarely used, however, and it was replaced that summer with a 36-room isolation center at the My Place hotel in Spokane Valley.
Later, the health district added a second isolation facility at the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center with capacity for 64 people.
As case numbers waned, health officials allowed the Immaculate Heart center to close at the end of May.
The delta variant, which is more infectious and transmissible, was sweeping through Spokane just as county leaders allowed the MyPlace Hotel contract to expire on Aug. 31 with no immediate replacement. The health district’s plan was to have shelters isolate COVID-positive guests inside their facilities, a decision met with dismay by shelter operators.
But cases, hospitalizations and deaths have exploded in Spokane County during the past month.
Shelter providers do not have limitless space to isolate residents. At Hope House, Meador isolated in a counselor’s office. Some can accommodate isolating small numbers of guests, but struggle to accommodate the needs of everyone during a COVID-19 surge.
Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez said last week that a new hotel option for isolation has been available since last Monday, but he declined to say where it is, citing an ongoing contract negotiation that the county is having with the hotel.
Currently that hotel isolation site has 10 rooms available, and as of Wednesday, there were two people occupying rooms there. Staff from the Spokane Regional Health District are providing wraparound services at the new hotel facility, with personal protective equipment and supplies.
Velazquez said this facility is for anyone in the community who needs to isolate, whether they are being discharged from the hospital or if they are staying at a shelter where there are no options to isolate. The plan is to have a contract for somewhere between 22 to 24 rooms, Velazquez said.
He also said that the health district is working with community partners on other potential options for isolation for people who might not do well in a hotel setting.
But while the health district explores its options, shelter providers fear another outbreak.
The House of Charity, which is operated by Catholic Charities, is currently able to meet the isolation needs of its guests, according to spokesperson Sarah Yerden. That’s in part due to its high vaccination rate and incentives it offers for people to get tested.
But another surge could spell trouble.
“If another large wave or new variant begins to emerge, we will need alternative spaces for folks to safely isolate and quarantine,” Yerden said.
The city-owned shelter on Cannon Street, which is operated by The Guardians Foundation, experienced a serious outbreak about six weeks ago, according to CEO Mike Shaw.
The shelter can isolate up to about 5% of its guests through the use of motor homes next to its facility.
But in sizable outbreaks, it’s forced to close off its entire third floor and use it as a COVID-19 isolation ward, with separate portable toilets and a shaded smoking area outdoors. It has isolated up to nearly 20 guests at a single time.
And while it’s able to be flexible and isolate a large percentage of its guests during such an outbreak, the shelter is forced to shut down to new guests.
“That’s where it becomes difficult for everybody,” Shaw said.
The Guardians Foundation started the pandemic staffing the health district’s former isolation center at the county fairgrounds, an experience that was valuable for staff members, according to Shaw.
“They joined up knowing that they’re going to be involved with COVID-positive patients; most of our staff has been here since the beginning a year ago. Morale goes down a little bit, but then when we’re in an outbreak, then we increase their pay a little bit,” Shaw said.
The outbreak has abated and the Cannon Street shelter is once again operating under normal COVID-19 procedures.
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