This story was originally published on April 3, 2020 by THE CITY
In Jamaica, Queens, next to an auto body shop and down from a used car lot, sits a utilitarian box-like building now serving as a crucial cog in the effort to control the spread of coronavirus.
It’s the latest in shelter-in-place lodging: the isolation hotel.
Among the guests is Elvira Larsen, a homeless shelter resident who uses a wheelchair and says she was moved to the hotel in the middle of the night about 10 days ago after being told she’d tested positive for coronavirus.
She’s had minimal face-to-face contact with other people since.
“You wouldn’t know it, but everybody here really is in quarantine,” said Larsen, 59, told THE CITY via phone. “Nobody’s in the hallways. Nobody’s talking.”
At least, she said, “When they drop the meals off, they wait for you to answer to see if you’re okay.”
In addition to homeless shelter residents like Larsen, the guests at the Jamaica hotel and three others lined up by the city include patients transferred out of hospitals trying to free up beds for sicker COVID-19 patients.
Some hotel residents have tested positive for coronavirus, were exposed to it in shelters or are vulnerable due to age or medical condition and have nowhere else to go. Others lived on the streets or subways, and tested positive after showing up at city drop-in centers. A growing number were thrown out of their homes after testing positive.
Yellow taxis periodically pull up and leave people to stay in a room of their own. On Thursday, a cabbie dropped off an elderly man still wearing his hospital gown, blue rubber gloves and paper slippers. A white surgical mask hung at his chin.
The man, using a walker, shuffled to the door and was escorted inside by a worker wearing a blue surgical mask. The driver told THE CITY the patient had come from Mt. Sinai Hospital, was “sick,” and had been dispatched to the hotel because he couldn’t go home to his family.
A Mt. Sinai spokesperson said that when a homeless patient is discharged, a social worker consults with staffers from the city Department of Homeless Services who decide where to send the person.
A Growing Need
The first city homeless shelter resident tested positive around March 15. Within a week, DHS had placed 34 shelter residents in one isolation hotel.
By Monday, the number was 150, and by Wednesday this figure reached 267, spread out over four hotels.
Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, declined to discuss the locations of any of the hotels. But he described the need for isolation units as crucial to contain the spread of the virus inside the city’s sprawling shelter system, which houses 58,000 people.
Crowded conditions inside some shelters, as THE CITY reported Tuesday, have made social distancing all but impossible.
As of Wednesday, 159 homeless people had tested positive for coronavirus — including seven who were living on the streets and nine transferred from public hospitals.
Asked by THE CITY who is being placed in these isolation hotels, McGinn said, “There are a wide variety of New Yorkers who cannot return to where they previously lived to isolate — and as a city, various agencies are mobilizing to ensure we meet their needs and help them recover to the best of our ability.”
The city’s public hospital system, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, is also placing patients who don’t need critical care in hotels to free up beds for the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
On Thursday, HHC announced it was scrambling to create a total of 3,000 ICU beds by May 1. An HHC spokesperson did not answer THE CITY’s questions about how many patients have been sent to hotels and what criteria is used to determine who stays or goes.
‘Nobody Will Come’
Larsen described life at the Jamaica hotel as extremely lonely and somewhat claustrophobic.
She said she has multiple medical issues that compromise her immune system. She was staying at a shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, when she was told by staff on March 23 that she’d tested positive for COVID-19 and needed to be quarantined right away.
Larsen said she was immediately placed alone in a room in the shelter while workers collected her belongings. They shuttled her into a for-hire car, whose driver took her to the hotel.
Elvira Larsen was transferred from a city shelter to an isolation hotel in Queens on March 23. She is seen here leaving a hospital in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Elvira Larsen
She believes she was one of the first isolation guests to arrive.
On her first day, a nurse took her temperature — then gave her the thermometer and advised her to take her temperature daily. She was handed a bottle of Fantastik cleaning spray, hand sanitizer, some Pine Sol and a mop.
Larsen said she’s made friends with a couple of her fellow guests, but usually she sees no one.
“They [other guests] stay in their room,” she said. “Hotel staff try not to interact with residents. They will not come in… You’re not supposed to walk outside.
“The security staff are behind a door and open a sliding door to talk to us. They literally stay away from us. The nurse won’t come into the room. Nobody will come into the room. They won’t touch anything.”
Larsen says she was told she has to remain in quarantine for 14 days. Since her arrival she says she’s experienced multiple symptoms, including headaches and nausea.
McGinn said the quarantine period is “based on latest guidance from city health experts. This includes: no symptoms for the past seven days, no fever for the past three days, and survey[ing] the client to ensure they are feeling better.”
He described the protocol for checking on the well-being of the isolation guests as “observational care.” Wellness checks are performed at a distance, and if a resident needs more extensive medical care, DHS will arrange for hospitalization, McGinn said.
So far, he noted, “to my knowledge” no isolation guest has required a trip to a hospital, and to date none have died.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.