Hotel rooms emptied by COVID-19 now quarantine space for people with the virus

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Holiday Inn Express in Center City has gotten very exclusive. Nowadays, you need a referral to get in.

“Whether it’s somebody that’s being discharged from a hospital or they’re in a shelter and they’ve tested positive or they’re awaiting results, they get referred through (the Department of) Behavioral Health,” said fire department Lt. Christopher Partin, a site manager at the hotel, which has been converted into isolation and quarantine space for people who have no other alternatives to shelter in place.

Philadelphia has invested heavily in renting out the entire hotel and staffing it with employees of several city departments and the firm Elliot Lewis. They provide services including three meals a day, and snacks, delivered to each room.

Partin says the guests can even call for room service.

“This is something new — for the city, the nation, just the world in general — that we’re dealing with,” Partin said. “We’re trying to mitigate it, but we also have to manage it properly. So that’s what we’re in the stage of doing, just managing it as best as we can.”

Deputy Health Commissioner Caroline Johnson says the goal is to slow the spread of the virus in shelters, where social distancing is impossible.

“One of the things that we’ve seen is when this virus is introduced into congregate settings — group homes, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and homeless shelters — it can spread pretty quickly and pretty widely because those facilities just are not set up to maintain distance,” she said.

“Anything we can do to remove people who are infected or who might be incubating the virus is going to help prevent the spread. In many of these facilities, the residents are also especially vulnerable. They have many underlying illnesses, so I think it’s important to try to help this population in particular.”

The health department has strict criteria for who can be admitted. They must be:

  • Tested for SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) and the results are pending or positive or require up to 14-day quarantine for observation.
  • Stable for discharge from hospital, without need of oxygen or home health support.
  • Experiencing homelessness or living in high-risk residence.
  • Unable to safely isolate or quarantine.
  • Provided with 14 days of all required medications.
  • Willing to comply with isolation and quarantine rules.

If patients leave before the 14-day quarantine is over, they cannot re-enter without a new referral.

Partin says only one guest has left since the hotel opened last week, and that was to go to the hospital for further treatment.

Dr. Johnson stresses the hotel is not a medical facility.

“The patients need to have their own medications with them. They need to be stable to be housed in a private room. They’re not under continuous observation of any kind,” she says.

Some homeless advocates would like to see the criteria loosened to include people who have shared a room with a shelter resident who tests positive for the virus.

Because of a shortage of supplies and lab capacity, testing is limited to those with symptoms but the advocates argue that someone exposed in a shelter could be contagious before they show symptoms. They argue that at least those over 60, or with underlying conditions, should be allowed to quarantine themselves at the hotel.

Dr. Johnson says the city simply doesn’t have the money or staff to do that and, at the moment, doesn’t have the beds.

“We try to use our resources as wisely as we can and that’s just not a practical solution,” she says.

City officials say they expect to announce agreements for additional space in other facilities, possibly as early as today. (They’ve declined to say how much they’ve spent on the Holiday Inn because of the ongoing negotiations.)

They say they hope to have dedicated space for people with severe behavioral health issues and another facility for first responders who don’t want to take the virus home, as well as more beds for shelter residents.

“I’m optimistic it’s going to help,” says Dr. Johnson. “I’m not sure it’s going to solve the problem. But we do what we can.”