Lawrence Community Shelter begins vaccine requirement for staff and guests, puts new quarantine process in place
photo by: Mike Yoder
Following recent cases of COVID-19, the local homeless shelter has begun requiring its staff and guests to get vaccinated and has put a new process in place for quarantine.
As the Journal-World previously reported, a hotel operator expressed concern after the shelter quarantined guests in hotels following a positive case at the shelter earlier this month. At that time, Shelter Board President Thea Perry said the shelter was examining a variety of options on how to deal with future situations and exploring the feasibility of requiring vaccinations going forward.
Testing conducted following the positive case resulted in two staff members — who were quarantining at home — and one guest testing positive for the virus. Guests and staff returned to the shelter on Aug. 13 once the quarantine period was over.
Meghan Bahn, the shelter’s director of community engagement, said the new requirement was put in place to protect both staff and guests, especially given the open layout of the shelter.
“It just isn’t safe in a congregate setting — we don’t have walls, nobody has a room,” Bahn said. “I think it’s really important for people to understand nobody has a private room. It’s a giant warehouse with bunk beds.”
All of the shelter’s staff were already vaccinated before the policy was put in place, and Bahn said most of the shelter’s 40 guests were either fully vaccinated or had received one shot. She said that ahead of the return to the shelter on Aug. 13, shelter staff notified guests that those who were unvaccinated would need to agree to get vaccinated to return to the shelter. She said most agreed but there were some guests who said they did not plan to return to the shelter under the new requirement.
Bahn said the shelter held a vaccine clinic when it reopened, and both first and second shots were administered to guests. She said guests who are fully vaccinated are allowed to stay in the shelter’s main dorm, while guests who have only received one shot or are not yet fully protected stay in a separated area. She said if someone shows up to the shelter who is not vaccinated, there is sometimes a volunteer nurse on duty who can provide vaccinations, otherwise staff will drive the person to a vaccine clinic. If potential guests do not want to be vaccinated, she said the shelter would work to find them other housing options or connect them to other support services.
Following the issues with the recent quarantine process, the shelter will not be quarantining and isolating guests in hotels going forward and will instead do so at the shelter. However, Bahn said in order to be able to do that, the shelter will not be increasing its capacity as previously planned and instead will remain at a maximum of 40 guests. She said that capacity would allow the shelter to quarantine people exposed to the virus in a separated area within the shelter’s main building and isolate people who have tested positive in the tiny homes on the shelter’s property.
“We’re really trying to handle the situation the best we can,” Bahn said. “We didn’t have an awareness of the Delta variant even probably seven weeks ago, so all of us who are serving this population and other vulnerable populations are really having to think on our feet and try to do the best that we can in a really difficult situation.”
The shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during the winter. In July, before the recent increase in cases due to the Delta variant, shelter board members told the Journal-World that the shelter would not return to the 125-bed capacity under its new housing first method, which focuses on quickly housing people, but that they did project the shelter would increase its capacity to 82 guests by September.
The shelter originally reduced its capacity to 65 people in August 2019 amid budget issues and changes to its staffing model following an outside review commissioned by the city and county, then further reduced the number of people housed at its building in eastern Lawrence to a maximum of 40 people amid the coronavirus pandemic. The shelter received federal coronavirus relief funding to help operate a temporary hotel shelter program during the worst of the pandemic, which allowed it to serve additional guests beyond those allowed at its facility, but that program ended April 1.