November 27, 2021

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Travel Finishes First

KS provides taxpayer-funded hotels to isolate COVID patients

9 min read

The person wearing a hospital mask at the hotel’s front desk could be a social worker.

To get to your room, you might have to unzip a plastic curtain blocking the hallway.

You cannot have guests, and under no circumstances can you come and go as you please.

But your room is free, courtesy of the state of Kansas and the federal government.

So is the room service, three times a day. And snacks. And laundry service. And just maybe someone might bring you that special comfort food you crave when you’re sick.

The rooms are set up for Kansas residents who have been exposed to or have tested positive for COVID-19 and need a place to isolate. The Federal Emergency Management Agency subsidizes the program. The goal is to prevent people who have no other place to stay — and are not sick enough to need hospitalization — from spreading the virus.

It is not, say the people running the program, a vacation.

“They’re scared. They’re sick. They don’t know what’s going to happen. And they’re alone,” said Devan Tucking-Strickler of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management in Topeka.

“I’ve had a number of situations come up where the individual (said), ‘Can I please come and stay at the shelter and can I come quickly because my roommates are angry. They’re mad. They don’t want me in the house. They want me to leave. I’m not comfortable here.”

Yet the rooms have not been widely publicized, and the hotels often have a number of vacancies. The need, though, has grown in recent weeks. The state rents entire hotels and currently has three in the Kansas City area as well as in Salina, Liberal, Dodge City, Emporia and, most recently, Lawrence.

For some hotels, according to officials’ figures, the state pays, at minimum, $3,000 a day.

There are no such hotel rooms on the Missouri side of the metro area, though Kansas City and St. Louis are eligible, said a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Kansas has offered the program since April. Finding hotels to open their doors to these special guests was challenging. Officials won’t divulge which hotels across the state are being used, citing privacy issues.

“We’ve had a little bit of trouble before with media camping out and watching who was going in and out, which is awkward if you’re somebody in quarantine,” she said.

But people have found them. In Johnson County, the sheriff and one county commissioner were not happy when they found out in July that a Super 8 in Gardner was being used as one of these isolation shelters.

In the Kansas City area, hotel rooms also are available in Kansas City, Kansas, and Lansing. The newest accommodations opened before Thanksgiving in Lawrence, where Douglas County officials announced they were putting people up at the Baymont Inn and Suites.

County officials there reached out to the state for help when the number of people needing to isolate began rising.

“I had to be really explicit with folks, this is not just a hotel night,” said Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the Douglas County administrator in Lawrence.

The rooms in Kansas have been used by meatpacking plant workers, prison guards, health care workers, people who live with at-risk family members, people who don’t have homes and, in a few cases, people who were tossed out of their homes after they came in contact with COVID-19.

in a typical week, 40 to 50 people across the state have used the rooms. Occupancy rates lately have doubled.

As of Friday there were 185,294 cases in Kansas, including 2,072 deaths. The state’s monthly positive test rate was 16.4%.

“Every time I think we’ve had a peak it blows my mind again. I think right now we’re headed up again, from what I’m looking at,” said Tucking-Strickler. “A few weeks ago, we started going a decent amount over 100 individuals. And today, we’re just bordering 100 and going up, whereas we were 40s and 50s a week ago.”

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The state of Kansas offers free hotel rooms for residents to isolate because of COVID-19. Plastic, zippered barriers are hung in the hallways to separate the rooms from the “green zone” reception area. Photo illustration by Neil Nakahodo The Kansas City Star

Meatpackers first

Isolating people in hotels has become a useful public health strategy during the pandemic. Following California’s lead, in April, Kansas City leased hotel space for homeless residents who had symptoms or had tested positive.

That contract has since expired, and “the health department has not received requests to coordinate with the state, first responders, hospitals, jails or prisons to provide similar hotel accommodations for isolation,” said Michelle Pekarsky, Kansas City Health Department spokeswoman.

This month when Juan Williams, co-host of the Fox News talk show “The Five,” tested positive for COVID-19, he checked into a hotel in Washington, D.C., with his flu-like symptoms so he wouldn’t infect his wife.

Tucking-Strickler didn’t have a total for how much the state has spent so far on Kansas’ rooms. The state sends the bills to FEMA for reimbursement.

The state pays for every room in a hotel whether they’re used or not. With average nightly rates of $60 to $75, hotels with 50 to 75 rooms cost the state $3,000 a day minimum. “So multiply that by all the sites we’ve got,” said Tucking-Strickler.

The state relies on local hospitals, health departments and community organizations to let people know the rooms are available. Local emergency management offices should have information, too. In Lawrence, almost all referrals come through the hospital, LMH Health.

In Wyandotte County, where the service began in late July, they’ll give you a ride home from the hotel if you need one. There are about 50 rooms available there. People there can call 311 for information. Others can contact their county health department or emergency management office.

Health officials would rather have you stay at a hotel than in a house full of people if you can’t isolate from them.

“That’s going to put everyone who’s in that same congregate setting, or anywhere they go, at risk,” said Janell Friesen, public information officer for the Unified Government Public Health Department. “It’s something that can increase the spread a lot. We’ve already seen spread through things like personal gatherings, and we don’t want this contributing to that as well.”

The hotels are not set up for anyone needing medical care. The Kansas Department of Children and Families manages some of the hotels and has employees on site.

The first hotels opened in the spring to house workers at meatpacking plants in Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal and Emporia, “because we knew we had to keep the meatpacking industry moving. That was vital,” said Tucking-Strickler.

The Garden City location, like others where usage has fallen off, has since closed, she said.

In the Kansas City area, the hotel in Leavenworth County has “been the most consistently busy,” used often by guards from the Lansing Correctional Facility.

“Because the shelters aren’t just for individuals that are either isolating or quarantining. They’re also for essential workers,” said Tucking-Strickler. “So if there’s anybody that’s worried about going to work and then getting the virus and then going home and spreading it to their family, they’re able to use this so they’re able to stay in those essential jobs.”

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Aaron Hall of Kansas City stayed 10 days and nine nights at an Econo Lodge in Charlotte, North Carolina, after testing positive for COVID-19 while in town. Jessica Koscielniak [email protected]

No room at these inns

Aaron Hall, a 32-year-old Kansas City man, spent 10 days and nine nights in an Econo Lodge near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina in August.

It was the motel that county officials had leased for quarantines, and Hall wound up there when he tested positive while in town. Until Hall talked to The Charlotte Observer, not much was known about what the set-up looked like.

Hall told of black mold on the walls of his hotel room and food he couldn’t eat, though he was grateful to have somewhere to stay, the newspaper reported. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. But it is kind of strange – it’s a very strange situation.”

Armed guards reportedly patrolled the hotel grounds 24/7.

Tucking-Strickler cringed when she saw the story, thinking, “thank God those aren’t mine.”

“We do not run things like that. There are not armed guards at any of my sites,” she said.

There are no flashing lights outside the hotel being used in Gardner that signal “hey, there’s something different here,” said Dan Robeson, deputy director of Johnson County Emergency Management and Communications. “But if you were to approach it and not know, there are multiple signs that say it’s closed to keep people out.”

Johnson County has placed about 40 people there since July, Robeson said, and requests for rooms have risen over the last month or so.

Tucking-Strickler described them “as hotels you and I would stay at if we went to a conference. They’re nice.”

From the get-go, she ran into problems finding hotels willing to rent out single rooms.

“The thing is, and I understand this, it’s very rare to find a hotel site that will allow you to put those that are COVID positive in isolation among their regular guests,” she said. “So they have told us throughout this, we’ll rent our entire facility to you.”

“That was a big thing when we had to tell FEMA, ‘Hey, I can’t rent just like 10 rooms, I have to take the whole place.’ That took a lot of explaining to do.

“So, yeah, it’s been a challenge. But overall we’ve been successful, and we’ve worked with groups like Wyndham that were very welcoming.”

When the state moves in, rooms are divided up into areas for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 — they get their own wing in Gardner, Robeson said — and others for people exposed.

Plastic, zippered barriers are hung to separate isolation rooms from the “green zone,” or the reception area.

“You wouldn’t be able to walk directly into the isolation area,” said Tucking-Strickler. “You would have to unzip the door and go on in. And of course our staff wears PPE … and that’s all been coordinated and recommended by” state health officials.

The state pays for three meals a day — Perkins, IHOP and the like — and there’s laundry service “because if you’re there for 14 days you might run out of stuff,” she said.

“And we also provide snacks, things like granola bars and chips and cookies and Gatorade and fruit cups and apple sauce and pudding, stuff you kind of want when you’re sick.”

How long people stay usually follows the advice of local health officials, which could mean 10 to 14 days for someone who has had direct exposure. For people with COVID-19, the stays can be longer. One person stayed for more than a month because their symptoms persisted.

The state doesn’t require anyone to have a negative test before they can check out, said Tucking-Strickler.

When a guest leaves, the state brings in a cleaning company to sanitize their room. “And when we leave the hotel itself, they sanitize the entire facility, and that facility gets what’s called a certificate of sanitization,” she said.

No coming and going

There are rules to follow. Douglas County officials have made it clear that anyone who checks into the Baymont Inn must be able to take care of themselves, and the rooms are not available to college students who live in dorms or to people who are incarcerated.

And the state is serious about what isolation means.

It means isolation.

Guests can go outside for some fresh air, “but they can’t be around the rest of the group. They have to stay away from one another,” said Tucking-Strickler.

“If somebody repeatedly is seen walking across the street to the Kwik Shop,” she said, they’ll be warned they risk getting kicked out.

“You’re defeating the purpose of why you say you need to isolate, because you’re sharing this with the people next door at the Kwik Shop. And after a couple of times, if they won’t respect the rules of the shelter, then they’re asked to leave. They can’t stay there.

State officials don’t know how long the hotel rooms will be available, but suspect the end of the need is nowhere in sight, even with COVID-19 vaccines on the way.

“We could be here for months,” said Tucking-Strickler.

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Lisa Gutierrez writes about medical and health-related issues for The Kansas City Star. She is a Kansas native and veteran of five newsrooms. She was a caregiver for her husband, who had dementia, until he died in July 2019.

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