At the beginning of March, King County bought a motel in Kent for people who needed to be isolated or quarantined because they had symptoms of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but who had no homes to isolate or quarantine themselves in.

The idea was to get anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 out of a shelter, where the disease could potentially travel very quickly.

But more than three weeks later, a number of shelter providers say it’s been extremely difficult to get their clients who are symptomatic and waiting on test results into this motel — even when they were referred by nurses in shelters or Harborview Medical Center, according to staff at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), one of the largest shelter providers in Seattle.

Most of the Kent motel’s units have been sitting empty for the last three weeks. As of Tuesday, only five people were staying at the facility, which has 79 rooms set aside for isolation and quarantine, according to Public Health — Seattle and King County.

DESC staff, in consultation with nurses from Harborview or Neighborcare, made requests for 13 clients to get into isolation and quarantine on Saturday, but as of Tuesday only received the go-ahead for one to move into the Kent motel, said Noah Fay, director of housing programs for DESC.

“What I can tell you right now is that none of our clients have actually gone to these places yet,” said Dan Malone, executive director of DESC, on Monday, the day before DESC’s first client was let in. “We can’t make that happen.”

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Symptomatic shelter residents are screened by epidemiology staff at Public Health — Seattle and King County, who “explore opportunities for testing and placement in isolation and quarantine units” if they think the shelter stayers may have COVID-19, county and public health spokespeople wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

A county spokesperson pointed out in an email that the county purchased the Kent motel less than a month ago, and staff and contractors have been “working hard, seven days a week, to outfit the motel for this purpose,” removing all carpeting throughout and replacing it with floors that are easier to clean.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

“Part of the challenge in opening has been that not only did the motel need quite a bit of repair, but the rooms need to be specifically outfitted so that they can be quickly sanitized between residents,” the spokesperson said.

Another option for isolation and quarantine, a 31-room modular facility in the Aurora neighborhood of North Seattle, opened Tuesday night.

Providers noted that they felt employees of Public Health — Seattle and King County were working very hard, but that Public Health was lacking resources and sometimes, communication.

“We don’t want a contagious person in such close quarters potentially spreading to people potentially in the high-risk category,” Fay said. “We need those (isolation and quarantine units) to get online and get online quick.”

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Some nonprofits are trying to do the isolation on their own. DESC has put up nearly 40 people in two hotels and is prepping to move 37 more into another hotel this week. Those are primarily people who have underlying health risks that could make a COVID-19 illness more severe, and who also don’t need a lot of daily support or supervision, Malone said in an email. 

But many people who’ve lived homeless for a while don’t have state I.D. or drivers’ licenses, so most hotels won’t book them.

The few local hotels that do are full up with other nonprofits’ clients, according to Elizabeth Dahl, executive director of Aurora Commons, a drop-in center on the Aurora strip in North Seattle. Dahl says she has about 30 clients with underlying health issues who staff believes should self-isolate.

“We want to pre-quarantine people and we can’t,” Dahl said. 

Some social workers and shelter providers have also complained about lack of tests for their clients, who are often uninsured and unable to simply call their doctor as the CDC suggests. One director of programs at a services center in Ballard described getting sent from one hotline or program to another, only to get referred back to the hotline she’d just called from.

But public health and health care services responded this week: On Monday, public health officials announced free COVID-19 testing at the downtown public health center at 2124 Fourth Avenue in Seattle for people who don’t have regular access to health care, targeting people living homeless, among other groups such as pregnant women, elderly people, and health care workers.

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And on Tuesday, Swedish Health Services announced it had converted its mobile mammography truck, also known as the “Breast Care Express,” into a testing van for homeless people. A spokesperson for Swedish said via email on Wednesday they have the capacity to test 150 people at DESC for coronavirus.

But the number of tests DESC expects to get in the next few days are “drips and drabs” compared to their need, Fay said.

“We’re just testing people who are symptomatic, and that really worries me,” Fay said, “given what we know that people can be asymptomatic and still contagious. It’s really concerning to me that we may have people who are unwittingly spreading the virus to other people.”

Alisa Chatinsky, executive director of the Bellevue women’s shelter The Sophia Way, says three of the people staying there on Tuesday have been exhibiting some symptoms. But The Sophia Way doesn’t have the space to keep people 6 feet apart in all their shelters and day centers.

“We don’t really have a good place to isolate someone who’s real sick,” Chatinsky said. “We’re doing our best to keep them apart as much as possible, but no, we don’t have the space.”

Chatinsky said public health officials have asked them not to bring their clients to any county-run isolation or quarantine spaces. The Sophia Way wasn’t able to get people exhibiting symptoms tested as of Wednesday, and also hasn’t been able to get anyone into isolation or quarantine.

“I don’t know who they’re serving,” Chatinsky said. “They’re not serving our folks.”

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