Douglas County leaders approve health order to provide hotel rooms or other off-site isolation locations for homeless shelters, other congregate living

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The Douglas County Commission meets at the county courthouse for its meeting Sept. 8, 2021.

To limit the spread of COVID-19 in homeless shelters, Douglas County leaders have approved a health order that calls for the county to support off-site isolation locations for those who have tested positive for the virus.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve an emergency public health order to provide noncongregate shelter options such as hotels and motels to shelters and other agencies that serve those experiencing homelessness.

“What we’ve found is that this resource is still needed in the community,” Emergency Management Director Robert Bieniecki told the commission.

The county previously helped coordinate a hotel quarantine program that was funded by the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, but Bieniecki said that when the state emergency order ended, so did that resource. In a move that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly criticized as political, top Republican legislators ended a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic in June, citing a decline in new cases, as The Associated Press reported.

Bieniecki said that in recent weeks community shelters have needed to provide isolation housing for those who have tested positive for COVID-19, and that social distancing measures have significantly limited the ability to provide adequate spaces within those facilities that do not put staff, other clients and the larger community at risk.

As the Journal-World has reported, leaders at the Lawrence Community Shelter recently announced that amid the more contagious Delta variant, capacity at the shelter would remain at 40 people — the shelter has the space to house up to 125 — so the shelter had room to quarantine and isolate people at its building in eastern Lawrence. That decision was made after a hotel operator expressed concern when the shelter quarantined guests in hotels and some reportedly mingled with other hotel guests.

Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said providers continue to express concern about the “reticence” of hotel operators to cooperate in quarantine efforts. Jolicoeur said under the program supported by the health order, the county will reimburse agencies for the hotel costs and staff support needed to run a successful isolation program.

“I think what this agreement sets us up nicely to do is to reimburse our provider agencies to provide a level of support that those clients need to stay safely housed and in their room and supported,” Jolicoeur said. “So it should not be a concern, ideally, to the hotel operators.”

Jolicoeur said the program will be available to guests at the shelter, other congregate shelters and those who work with those individuals, including Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Willow Domestic Violence Center, and other partner agencies. She said that the new iteration of the program would also be more limited. The previous program provided free lodging and meals for those who were positive with COVID-19 as well as those who had to quarantine due to exposure to the virus, but she said the new program would only serve those who had tested positive.

Under the previous program, Bieniecki said that the KDEM, backed by Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, staffed a hotel that the community was able to use as quarantine and isolation space at no cost. Under the new program, Bieniecki said the county will enter into agreements with participating agencies, the agencies will pay the upfront costs of hotel rooms and support, and then the county will manage reimbursement from FEMA through KDEM.

Bieniecki said in order to be eligible for reimbursement, the county needed to have a health order supporting the effort. Commissioners agreed with the assessment that such a program was necessary.

The order goes into effect Thursday and will remain in force unless it is rescinded or modified by the health officer or the commission.

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