Concerns mount over homeless shelter’s decision to use local hotels as COVID quarantine sites
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
UPDATED 8:25 P.M. AUG. 5, 2021
There’s a new question hotel travelers may want to ask themselves: Is the hotel serving as a quarantine site for people waiting out COVID-19?
A recent situation in Lawrence suggests that hotel guests likely won’t know, and hotel operators themselves may be in the dark about it.
The local situation involves the Lawrence Community Shelter and a decision we reported on last week when the homeless shelter announced it was closing for up to two weeks after a guest at the shelter tested positive. The shelter announced that approximately 40 guests of the shelter would quarantine in hotel rooms.
At the time, there may have been an assumption by some members of the public that such hotel quarantines would be done in a designated hotel that was blocked off for that purpose. But that has not been the case. Multiple sources have told the Journal-World that the individuals who have quarantined in hotels simply were checked into hotels across the city as ordinary guests.
At least one hotel operator became aware that the guests were there as part of a quarantine program and was appalled that they weren’t practicing good quarantine procedures. She said that quarantine guests were routinely coming to the breakfast area and lobby area unmasked, and that at times they were visiting in close contact with other guests of the hotel.
“This is crazy,” said Misty Snyder, general manager of the Super 8 motel, 801 Iowa St. “I work here so much — I live here, basically. My grandbaby comes here every day at 2:30. For people to not take this seriously, it is crazy to me.”
Snyder said the four members of her staff were concerned enough about the situation that they all felt they needed to get tested for COVID after learning of the situation.
A representative with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health confirmed the agency has received “a lot of calls” from both hotel operators and guests about hotels being used for quarantine sites.
“We do not recommend that the shelter put their guests into hotels,” Sonia Jordan, director of informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said. “That is not the path that we recommended them to go down. But there is only so much control we have over that situation.”
But it is likely that the Lawrence Community Shelter is not alone in turning to hotels to serve as quarantine sites. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website listing guidance for homeless service providers mentions using hotels as a possibility in quarantine situations.
“Depending on resources and staff availability, non-group housing options (such as hotels/motels) that have individual rooms should be considered for the overflow, quarantine, and protective housing sites for isolation,” the CDC website reads.
Thea Perry, president of the Lawrence Community Shelter’s board of directors said via email that she believes hotels are being used for quarantine purposes the world over because they are “usually the best, if not perfect option.”
“There are currently no good options for quarantining every guest staying at our shelter at any given moment, as the state-run isolation and quarantine site ceased operations in May,” Perry said. “We’ve spaced out guests’ beds and dining room seating, limited capacity, enforced mask mandates, installed plastic barriers around beds, and taken every precaution possible to limit transmission of the coronavirus.”
At the Super 8, Snyder said she understood the shelter likely was in a difficult situation about where to house individuals who needed to be put into quarantine. Regardless, she thinks the idea to use hotels was shortsighted.
“I understand that they are trying to get people housed, but they need to understand they are just spreading it more because they are exposing people to it in larger numbers than they would otherwise,” Snyder said.
During the past week, for instance, the hotel has had guests from Ohio, Arizona, Texas, Illinois and elsewhere, Snyder said. And that is just her hotel. She said she’s aware of at least three other hotels in Lawrence that have been used as part of the quarantine program.
Jordan, at the health department, said she understands the concerns of hotel operators and guests, which is one of the reasons the health department does not recommend the use of hotels as quarantine sites. However, when asked, she didn’t offer other ideas for alternative locations. Instead, she noted that other congregate living facilities — think jails, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — do not close down when a guest contracts COVID. Instead they have plans that use masking, social distancing and other preventive measures designed to stop or slow the spread of the virus.
The CDC website for homeless shelters does note that a positive case at a shelter should not result in an automatic closure of the shelter.
“Continuing homeless services during community spread of COVID-19 is critical, and homeless shelters should not close or exclude people who are having symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 without a plan for where these clients can safely access services and stay,” the website states.
Snyder said one of the more disturbing aspects at her hotel is how guests who are supposed to be quarantining are unsupervised and are not taking the no-contact provisions of quarantine seriously.
Unfortunately, Jordan said that situation may be happening across Douglas County, regardless of whether a person is part of the LCS quarantine program. In other words, there is nothing stopping county residents who are supposed to be quarantining in their homes from breaking quarantine. They too may be traveling to grocery stores or may be out in the community in other ways.
“If people are not staying in their rooms, that is a real concern,” Jordan said. “But in general, right now with the way the Delta variant is spreading, everybody should be acting with an abundance of caution.”
Perry said that guests quarantining in hotel rooms were given specific instructions about how to quarantine and also have been provided the appropriate resources to quarantine, including food and supplies that would allow guests to stay in their rooms. Ultimately, though, Perry said the shelter is limited in how much it can control the actions of those guests.
“We can provide resources and information, but our clients are adults who make their own choices,” Perry said.
As for why hotel operators were not told about the quarantine situation, Perry said the shelter believed disclosing such information would have violated laws that protect the personal health information of individuals. As for why the shelter decided to quarantine everyone — even if they may have been vaccinated — Perry said concerns were heightened that the positive case may have been the Delta variant, which is more contagious. Since the original test came back positive, two more positive cases have emerged from the shelter community. Both individuals were vaccinated, which Perry said affirmed the shelter’s decision to call for the quarantine.
The Delta variant, which spreads much more easily than other versions of the COVID virus, is a prime reason why Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health is strongly recommending that people wear masks indoors.
Of course, the No. 1 recommendation from the health department and the CDC is for anyone who is eligible to receive a vaccine to get vaccinated.
It is not clear how many people who were guests at the shelter were vaccinated. That would play a role in determining whether those individuals were required to quarantine. Current guidelines from the CDC and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which the local health department is following, don’t call for fully vaccinated individuals to quarantine if they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID. The exception is that if a person is exhibiting symptoms, then they should quarantine. The CDC recommends vaccinated individuals get tested within three to five days of having been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID.
Last week, there appeared to be some thought that because the positive case at the shelter could be the more contagious Delta variant, it would be necessary to quarantine all guests regardless of vaccination status. However, the CDC and other major health organizations have not yet adopted any standard that would call for such a quarantine.
Perry said the shelter is “examining a variety of options” on how to deal with a future situation at the shelter. She said the shelter is working with the health department “to explore the feasibility of requiring vaccinations going forward.”
1 more guest, 1 staffer positive
Two additional people have tested positive so far for COVID-19 after a guest at the Lawrence Community Shelter tested positive for the virus last week.
The guest, who had been staying at the shelter for about a week, was experiencing symptoms and tested positive for the virus on Tuesday, as the Journal-World reported. Afterward, the shelter closed while 42 guests and 34 full-time and part-time staff members were quarantined and tested.
Shelter board President Thea Perry said Thursday that the vast majority of the 76 tests had come back and that one staff member and one guest had so far tested positive. She said both the staff member and the guest had been vaccinated. In addition to a small number of still-pending initial tests, Perry said a few staff members who initially tested negative but have since started not feeling well are being retested.
The shelter asked all staff and guests to quarantine following the initial case, with staff staying at their homes and the shelter paying for hotel stays for the guests. The shelter temporarily closed as a result, and Perry said the shelter would reopen on Aug. 13 once the quarantine period is over.